By Steve Lindley, Associate Director of Financial Aid
Financial aid can sometimes feel like an intimidating topic. But it doesn’t need to be!
It’s important to remember that financial aid does exist, in both need-based and merit-based forms. For the Class of 2018, 93% of our students are receiving some type of aid; need-based financial aid awards can range from $5,500 to over $50,000. Here, I will break down and define some of the most important terms within the financial aid process.
Scholarships: the most common word associated with financial aid. Scholarships are awarded to students based on the information on their admissions application. The criteria aren’t established in a grid; rather, scholarships are determined based on above-average academic performance and extra-curricular engagement. At St. Olaf College, we have both academic and fine arts scholarships, as well, which scholarships range from $2,000 – $24,000. Though scholarships will appear on your financial aid award, all selection is completed by faculty and admissions staff.
Grants are a form of financial aid that is similar to scholarships. While scholarships are based on the admissions application and strength of the student, grants are determined by the family’s financial information. The Financial Aid Office gets this information through both the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA. Grants can come from the federal and state governments, in addition to the college or university. Taking the time to carefully fill out these forms (and doing them on time) is the best way to give the Financial Aid Office a picture of your family’s financial circumstances. For this current year, Oles are receiving over $24 million in grants.
In some ways, grants and scholarships can be thought of in a similar fashion. They are both “gift aid.” Gift aid is money given to the student that the student does not have to earn or repay.
The next main form of financial aid is student employment, or work study. Students are able to earn this money by working a job either on or off-campus. This money can be used to help pay for tuition or directed to the student to help with miscellaneous expenses (Target run, anyone?). There are hundreds of jobs: helping in the cafeteria, working on hanging shows in the art gallery, managing a stockroom for the chemistry department, staffing the front desk of a residence hall, and even refereeing intramural flag football games. Sometimes, your work study job could help inspire a future career path.
The last big term that students and families need to understand is student loans. We believe that reasonable student loan debt is a necessary part of affording a St. Olaf education. That said, St. Olaf works closely with students to make sure they are taking on a manageable amount of debt and that their loan debt won’t affect their post-graduation decisions. Our median loan debt this past year was $27,000 (cumulatively, not per year), below the national average.
There are two kinds of loans: federal and private. Federal loans are the loans from the government directly to the student, while private loans come from financial institutions (like banks or credit unions). Federal loans are often preferable to private loans because they tend to have a lower interest rate, do not require a co-signer, and offer more repayment/forgiveness options.
So, there you have it! I hope this has helped define some of the terms you need to know in the financial aid process. For now, do your research. Communicate with financial aid offices about changes or context of your family’s financial situation. If a student or family wants to see an estimate of their St. Olaf Financial Aid Award, the Net Price Calculator can help. While the Calculator isn’t exact, it is useful to learn what information is relevant and does help give families an idea of what they might qualify for in financial aid.
Think about all four years instead of just the first year when considering a college’s affordability. Though finances can play a large role in the college search, be sure to consider the value of the academic and social fit overall.