Which Type of Financial Aid Should You Accept First?

Author
Abigail Eun
Abigail Eun
author

Abigail Eun is a freelance writer and personal finance expert. Through diligent research and continuous learning, she has honed her knowledge in budgeting, saving, investing, and debt management. Abigail is passionate about helping people get their finances in order. She believes that everyone should have access to the information they need to make sound financial decisions. Her goal is to provide clear and concise information that is easy to understand.

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Edited by
Daniel Kahn
Daniel Kahn
editor
Daniel is the co-founder and COO at Sparrow. Daniel is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a company, working closely with other members of the executive team to develop and implement strategies to support the growth and success of the company.
Daniel was a 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 lister in the Education category.  Daniel was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from Duke University in 2020.
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Camden Ford
Camden Ford
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Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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Updated
January 15, 2024

Now that you’ve been accepted into college, it’s time to figure out how you are going to pay for your education. As you sift through your financial aid packages, it may be confusing to differentiate between the different types of financial aid you were offered.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the different types of financial aid and how you should go about accepting your financial aid package.

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The 4 Types of Financial Aid

There are four key types of financial aid: scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans.

Scholarships

Scholarships are a form of financial aid that is awarded based on academic merit or other achievements. They do not need to be paid back (yay!).

Scholarships are a popular form of financial aid. In fact, 58% of families paid for some amount of their college tuition with scholarships in 2020.

Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on the organization that is offering the scholarship, scholarships can range from $100 to the entirety of your four-year tuition.

Usually, you have to apply for scholarships by providing general information about yourself, writing an essay to a prompt, and demonstrating why you are the best candidate for the scholarship. However, there are also scholarships that you can apply to with a single click of a button or through other creative means.

Where Do Scholarships Come From?

Scholarships come from a variety of sources, including state governments, private organizations, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and more.

What Can I Use Scholarships For?

This depends on the type of scholarship you receive. Some scholarships require students to use the money on specific expenses, such as textbooks and school supplies, tuition, or university housing costs. Other scholarships are more flexible and allow the student to use the money on an educational expense they deem fit.

How Do I Find Scholarships?

There are a variety of ways you can find and apply for scholarships. You can:

  1. Reach out to your high school and/or college’s financial aid office and ask for assistance in finding scholarships.
  2. Use scholarship search engines like Bold, Sallie Mae’s Scholarship Search, or Chegg.
  3. Find organizations that specialize in your academic field of study. For example, if you are on a pre-dental track, find dental organizations and see if they offer any scholarships.

Grants

Like scholarships, grants do not need to be paid back. However, grants are only issued based on financial need, meaning you must meet a specified financial threshold to be an eligible recipient.

Most likely, federal grants, which are offered by the federal government, will be applied to your financial aid package. Non-federal grants are very similar in nature to scholarships, so this article will focus on the different types of federal grants.

What Types of Federal Grants Are There?

There are four types of federal grants:

  1. Federal Pell Grants
  2. Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
  3. Iran and Afghanistan Service Grants
  4. Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants

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Work-Study

Work-study is a federal program that allows undergraduate and graduate students to work on-campus and earn money to pay for their educational expenses. Any money earned from the federal work-study program does not need to be paid back or used towards tuition – the student can use the money how they deem fit.

Who Is Eligible for Work-Study?

To be eligible for work-study, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You must be enrolled as a full-time student at an accredited university.
  • You must have submitted your Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the school year.
  • You must demonstrate financial need.

Loans

There are two main types of loans: federal student loans and private student loans. Because loans are borrowed money, they must be paid back with interest.

Accepting loans is a large responsibility – you’ll want to know exactly what you are getting into before you take on any debt.

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Federal Student Loans

Federal loans are a type of loan that is offered by the federal government. Generally, federal student loans are the best option for student borrowers because of their varied repayment plans, strong borrower protection, flexible eligibility requirements, and potential for federal loan forgiveness.

All federal student loans have a fixed interest rate that is set by Congress, meaning the interest rate you receive when you originate the loan will remain the same throughout the life of the loan.

Most students are offered a mix of unsubsidized and subsidized Federal Direct Loans.

Unsubsidized Loans

Subsidized Loans

Offered to undergraduate and graduate students with no financial requirements.

Only offered to undergraduates who demonstrate financial need.

Accrue interest during the entire life of the loan, whether it is during the school year, grace period, or any deferment period.

Do not accrue interest if the student is enrolled at least half-time during the school period, during the grace period (six months after you graduate), and during any period of loan deferment.

Between unsubsidized and subsidized loans, subsidized loans are clearly the winner. However, you cannot pick and choose between these loans – you must meet a financial requirement to be eligible for subsidized loans.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are offered by private entities like banks, financial institutions, and other private companies. Private student loan lenders are autonomous, meaning they set interest rates, repayment plans, and borrower protections as they please.

If you are a first-time borrower, it may be difficult to receive a private student loan that has a fair interest rate, or even receive a private student loan at all. You will most likely need to add a cosigner that has a strong credit history to your loan to receive better terms.

Generally, experts recommend that you accept federal loans before private loans because federal loans tend to have better interest rates, repayment terms, and borrower protection plans for the borrower.

Accept Financial Aid in This Order

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it is FEB — Free, Earned, Borrowed.

You’ll want to accept financial aid in this order, starting with any free money, then earned money, and then borrowed money. Accepting aid this way will help you minimize the amount of debt you incur.

Free Money: Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants are essentially free money. They do not need to be paid back, so feel free to take as much as you can get. Any federal grants that you are eligible for will show up on your financial aid package, so you can accept them through your account portal.

On the other hand, you will have to apply for a majority of scholarships, so be sure to do that.

Earned Money: Work-Study

Next, you’ll want to accept any work-study that is offered on your financial aid award. While work-study money is earned and is not free, work-study still lowers the amount of money that you will need to borrow.

Borrowed Money

Borrowing money is a large responsibility, given that the amount you owe can spike immensely with interest accrual. You’ll want to accept any borrowed money in the following order so that you can graduate with the least amount of debt.

#1: Federal Subsidized Loans

Federal subsidized loans do not accrue any interest while you are enrolled at least half-time in school, during your grace period, as well as during loan deferment periods. Because interest does not capitalize on these loans, federal subsidized loans will be your cheapest loan option.

#2: Federal Unsubsidized Loans

Federal unsubsidized loans accrue interest for the entire life of the loan. However, because the loans are offered by the federal government, they come with a myriad of repayment options, borrower protection plans, potential loan forgiveness, and deferment plans.

#3: Private Student Loans

Private student loans should be accepted last. While you may be able to receive a more competitive interest rate if borrowing with a cosigner, private student loans have more limited repayment options and are not eligible for loan forgiveness.

Student loan rates from our partners
lender Ascent logo
Ascent
Minimum credit score
Varies
Fixed APR
Fixed APR

Ascent’s undergraduate and graduate student loans are funded by Bank of Lake Mills, or DR Bank, each Member FDIC. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: www.AscentFunding.com/Ts&Cs. Rates are effective as of 6/3/2024 and reflect an automatic payment discount of either 0.25% (for credit-based loans) OR 1.00% (for undergraduate outcomes-based loans). Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: AscentFunding.com/Rates. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Cosigned Credit-Based Loan student must meet certain minimum credit criteria. The minimum score required is subject to change and may depend on the credit score of your cosigner. Lowest rates require full
principal and interest payments, the shortest loan term, a cosigner, and are only available for our most creditworthy applicants and cosigners with the highest average credit scores. Actual APR offered may be higher or lower than the repayment examples above, based on the amount of time you spend in school and any grace period you have before repayment begins.

4.29 - 15.96%
Variable APR
Variable APR

Ascent’s undergraduate and graduate student loans are funded by Bank of Lake Mills, or DR Bank, each Member FDIC. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: www.AscentFunding.com/Ts&Cs. Rates are effective as of 6/3/2024 and reflect an automatic payment discount of either 0.25% (for credit-based loans) OR 1.00% (for undergraduate outcomes-based loans). Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: AscentFunding.com/Rates. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Cosigned Credit-Based Loan student must meet certain minimum credit criteria. The minimum score required is subject to change and may depend on the credit score of your cosigner. Lowest rates require full
principal and interest payments, the shortest loan term, a cosigner, and are only available for our most creditworthy applicants and cosigners with the highest average credit scores. Actual APR offered may be higher or lower than the repayment examples above, based on the amount of time you spend in school and any grace period you have before repayment begins.

6.23 - 16.09%
lender LendKey logo
LendKey
Minimum credit score
660
Fixed APR
Fixed APR

1 – Terms and Conditions Apply

Loan products, terms, and benefits may be modified or discontinued by participating lenders at any time without notice. Rates displayed are reserved for the most creditworthy consumers who enroll to make automatic monthly payments. Your initial rate will be determined after a review of your application and credit profile. Variable rates may increase after consummation. You must be either a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident in an eligible state and from an eligible school, and meet the lender’s credit and income requirements to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account, a minimum share account deposit, and the payment of any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to apply with, and accept a loan offered from, a credit union lender. If you are not a member of the credit union lender, you may apply and become a member during the loan application process if you meet the lender’s eligibility criteria. Applying with a creditworthy cosigner may result in a better chance of loan approval and/or lower interest rate. Loans for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not available via LendKey.com.

2 – Cosigner Release

Some lenders participating on LendKey.com may offer the benefit of cosigner release. Cosigner release is subject to lender approval. In order to qualify, the borrower, alone, must meet the following requirements: (1) Make the required number of consecutive, on-time full principal and interest payments as indicated in the borrower’s credit agreement during the repayment period (excluding interest-only payments) immediately prior to the request. Any period of forbearance will reset the repayment clock; (2) The account cannot be in delinquent status; (3) The borrower must provide proof of income indicating that he/she meets the income requirements and pass a credit review demonstrating that he/she has a satisfactory credit history and the ability to assume full responsibility of loan repayment; (4) No bankruptcies or foreclosures in the last sixty months; and (5) No loan defaults.

3 – Autopay Rate Reduction

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments.

4 – AutoPay Discount & Lowest Interest Rate

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised APR is only available for loan terms of 10 years and is reserved for the highest qualified applicants, taking into consideration the applicant’s credit and other factors.

3.99 - 12.61%
Variable APR
Variable APR

1 – Terms and Conditions Apply

Loan products, terms, and benefits may be modified or discontinued by participating lenders at any time without notice. Rates displayed are reserved for the most creditworthy consumers who enroll to make automatic monthly payments. Your initial rate will be determined after a review of your application and credit profile. Variable rates may increase after consummation. You must be either a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident in an eligible state and from an eligible school, and meet the lender’s credit and income requirements to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account, a minimum share account deposit, and the payment of any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to apply with, and accept a loan offered from, a credit union lender. If you are not a member of the credit union lender, you may apply and become a member during the loan application process if you meet the lender’s eligibility criteria. Applying with a creditworthy cosigner may result in a better chance of loan approval and/or lower interest rate. Loans for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not available via LendKey.com.

2 – Cosigner Release

Some lenders participating on LendKey.com may offer the benefit of cosigner release. Cosigner release is subject to lender approval. In order to qualify, the borrower, alone, must meet the following requirements: (1) Make the required number of consecutive, on-time full principal and interest payments as indicated in the borrower’s credit agreement during the repayment period (excluding interest-only payments) immediately prior to the request. Any period of forbearance will reset the repayment clock; (2) The account cannot be in delinquent status; (3) The borrower must provide proof of income indicating that he/she meets the income requirements and pass a credit review demonstrating that he/she has a satisfactory credit history and the ability to assume full responsibility of loan repayment; (4) No bankruptcies or foreclosures in the last sixty months; and (5) No loan defaults.

3 – Autopay Rate Reduction

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments.

4 – AutoPay Discount & Lowest Interest Rate

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised APR is only available for loan terms of 10 years and is reserved for the highest qualified applicants, taking into consideration the applicant’s credit and other factors.

5.98 - 13.74%
lender Earnest logo
Earnest
Minimum credit score
650
Fixed APR
Fixed APR

Student Loan Origination (Private Student Loan) Interest Rate Disclosure:
Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 4.54% APR to 16.74% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 5.87% APR to 17.10% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Earnest variable interest rate student loan origination loans are based on a publicly available index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The variable rate is based on the rate published on the 25th day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month, rounded to the nearest hundredth of a percent. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Although the rate will vary after you are approved, it will never exceed 36% (the maximum allowable for this loan). Please note, Earnest Private Student Loans are not available in Nevada. Our lowest rates are only available for our most credit qualified borrowers and contain our .25% auto pay discount from a checking or savings account. It is important to note that the 0.25% Auto Pay discount is not available while loan payments are deferred.

4.29 - 16.49%
Variable APR
Variable APR

Student Loan Origination (Private Student Loan) Interest Rate Disclosure:
Actual rate and available repayment terms will vary based on your income. Fixed rates range from 4.54% APR to 16.74% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Variable rates range from 5.87% APR to 17.10% APR (excludes 0.25% Auto Pay discount). Earnest variable interest rate student loan origination loans are based on a publicly available index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The variable rate is based on the rate published on the 25th day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month, rounded to the nearest hundredth of a percent. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Although the rate will vary after you are approved, it will never exceed 36% (the maximum allowable for this loan). Please note, Earnest Private Student Loans are not available in Nevada. Our lowest rates are only available for our most credit qualified borrowers and contain our .25% auto pay discount from a checking or savings account. It is important to note that the 0.25% Auto Pay discount is not available while loan payments are deferred.

5.62 - 16.85%
lender College Ave logo
College Ave
Minimum credit score
Mid-600s
Fixed APR
Fixed APR

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through Firstrust Bank, member FDIC, First Citizens Community Bank, member FDIC, or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

*The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as the borrower or cosigner, if applicable, enrolls in auto-pay and authorizes our loan servicer to automatically deduct your monthly payments from a valid bank account via Automated Clearing House (“ACH”). The rate reduction applies for as long as the monthly payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account and is suspended during periods of forbearance and certain deferments. Variable rates may increase after consummation. $5,000 is the minimum requirement to refinance. The maximum loan amount is $300,000 for those with medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary doctorate degrees, and $150,000 for all other undergraduate or graduate degrees. Information advertised valid as of 08/25/2022. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a refi borrower with a Full Principal & Interest Repayment and a 10-year repayment term, has a $40,000 loan and a 5.5% Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $434.11 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $52,092.61. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 6/14/2024. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Approved interest rate will depend on creditworthiness of the applicant(s), lowest advertised rates only available to the most creditworthy applicants and require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.

4.29 - 16.69%
Variable APR
Variable APR

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through Firstrust Bank, member FDIC, First Citizens Community Bank, member FDIC, or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

*The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as the borrower or cosigner, if applicable, enrolls in auto-pay and authorizes our loan servicer to automatically deduct your monthly payments from a valid bank account via Automated Clearing House (“ACH”). The rate reduction applies for as long as the monthly payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account and is suspended during periods of forbearance and certain deferments. Variable rates may increase after consummation. $5,000 is the minimum requirement to refinance. The maximum loan amount is $300,000 for those with medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary doctorate degrees, and $150,000 for all other undergraduate or graduate degrees. Information advertised valid as of 08/25/2022. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.

This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a refi borrower with a Full Principal & Interest Repayment and a 10-year repayment term, has a $40,000 loan and a 5.5% Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $434.11 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $52,092.61. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 6/14/2024. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Approved interest rate will depend on creditworthiness of the applicant(s), lowest advertised rates only available to the most creditworthy applicants and require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.

5.59 - 16.85%

Closing Thoughts From the Nest

As you navigate through your financial aid packages, remember to accept your financial aid in the following order: FEB (Free, Earned, Borrowed). It is a helpful guide for accepting financial aid to take on the least amount of debt possible.

If you are still exploring private student loan options, consider using Sparrow. We offer a quick, free form that allows you to see which student loans you pre-qualify for across 15+ private lenders.

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