On Friday November 8, 2019 colleges and universities across the U.S. celebrated the 3rd annual First-Generation College Celebration Day!1 As a first-generation student who has worked with fellow first-generation students, I know there are many terms used in higher education whose meaning is not easily understood by every student and their family members. I would like to decode a few of those commonly used and often misunderstood financial aid acronyms.


This acronym stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Sometimes families make the false assumption that their student will not be eligible for aid and therefore never apply. You should always apply, just in case. For instance, the community college where I used to work required all student workers to apply for the FAFSA in order to apply for an on-campus job.

Beware: the official website is www.fafsa.gov – however, there are fake websites out there that charge you to apply for financial aid. But remember, the first word of the FAFSA acronym is FREE – you should never have to pay to apply for college financial aid!2

The opening date to begin filling out the FAFSA for the following academic year has moved from January 1st up to October 1st – for example, the application for the 2020-2021 academic year became available on October 1, 2019 rather than the former date, which would have been January 1, 2020. When this change to the application process was made, it included a change to which year’s taxes would be used when completing the FAFSA – for instance, the 2020-2021 FAFSA would have required your 2019 taxes (prior year), but it now requires your 2018 taxes (prior-prior year).3

Some families experience a job loss or loss of a financial contributor between tax years, altering their income from 2018 to 2019. If this is the case, you will still complete the FAFSA as required; but you can contact the financial aid office at your institution to provide documentation of the change that lowered your overall income. At the institution’s discretion, your information will be reviewed to be considered as a special circumstance and be eligible for aid that you would not have been eligible for using the prior-prior year’s taxes.4


This acronym stands for Estimated Family Contribution. This amount is a calculation generated by the information submitted in your FAFSA and is used by an institution to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive. It does not mean that this is the amount of money your family is expected to pay to the college for attendance.5

If you do not see the Pell Grant as a part of your financial aid package, you did not qualify for this form of federal financial aid. Depending on the institution a student attends, they may qualify for and subsequently be offered federal subsidized or unsubsidized loans, another type of federal financial aid, as a part of their financial aid award. It is your choice to accept or reject these loans, and you may choose the amount you would like to borrow – you are not required to accept the full amount(s) offered.6


This acronym stands for Cost of Attendance. This number is calculated by colleges to estimate the cost of attending their institution for an academic year (fall and spring). The figure is generated to include tuition and fees along with an overall estimate of the cost of books and supplies, transportation, living expenses and miscellaneous expenses.7

The only definitive number in the calculation is the tuition and fees – everything else is an estimate. Depending on your major, you may pay considerably more for books and supplies than another student. If you live at home or off-campus, you may have lower living expenses than a student that lives on-campus. If you drive to school each day rather than living close enough to campus to be able to bike, walk, or ride public transportation, you may spend more on transportation expenses.

An important lesson is to always read the fine print and don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Now that you know a few basic financial aid terms, the application process should be a little easier to understand.

Guest Contributor: Christina Gilroy, AFC® candidate

  1. https://firstgen.naspa.org/engagement/2019-first-generation-college-celebration/2019-first-generation-college-celebration
  2. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/scams
  3. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/deadlines
  4. https://blog.ed.gov/2019/09/7-things-need-fill-2020-21-fafsa-form/
  5. https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc01g.htm
  6. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans
  7. https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/costatt.htm

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