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Understanding Financial Aid Awards



What do these words mean??


Financial aid award letters can be confusing. There's so much terminology to interpret and every award letter is different, this can make it hard to figure out what exactly you are being offered and how much exactly this will cost you and your family. Here's a breakdown of the terms:

Grants: This is money from the government that you do NOT have to pay back. Grants are typically need-based. Pell Grants are federal aid, Cal Grants are state aid.

Scholarships: This is money from some type of institution, whether it be a private donor or through your school. Scholarships can be need-, merit-, or interest-based. You do NOT have to pay this money back.

Loans: This is money from the federal government and you DO have to pay it back. Direct subsidized loans are better than unsubsidized loans because you do not have to pay interest while you are in school. Both are better than credit-based loans, like a Direct PLUS Loan or private student loan, which have much higher interest rates and you must begin paying them back immediately with no possibility of deferment. 

Federal work-study: A program where you work to earn your financial aid.

Cost of attendence (COA): An estimate of what you'll pay for one year of school. Usually this includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and living expenses. However some schools use the term "direct cost" and this only refers to tuition and fees, or money you will be paying directly to the school, not factoring in the other expenses which could make it appear like you'll be paying less than you will in reality.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC): A number used to determine how much financial aid you are eligible for based on your family's income. It is not what your family will actually be paying, it is an estimate of what the government "thinks" your family can contribute.


financial aid breakdown of costs



How can I compare my award packages?


The Financial Aid Award Comparison Tool allows students to create a free account on and then compare up to six financial aid award packages from California colleges and universities using the information from their award letters. After entering all of their award information into the tool, students will be able to see the following:

  1. “The Gap”, or the remaining cost of college that still is not met through grants, scholarships or loans (a negative result actually means that the student has a surplus from the financial aid awarded).
  2. The percentage ratio of “free aid” vs. “loan aid” with explanations of what this ratio means and why this is important.
  3. Students can save their worksheets and also print them.
  4. They can link to a repayment calculator which will allow them to view their repayment options.

The tool can be accessed by:

  1. Go to California Colleges Website
  2. Log on to your account or create a free account if you do not already have one
  3. Click “Finance” (or click the link in the middle of the home page)
  4. Click “Compare Financial Aid Awards”
  5. Select the California college or university from the drop-down menu (the TCOA will auto-populate)
  6. Enter information from your award letter
  7. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Save Worksheets and Compare Awards”