Financial aid 101

Students studying at table

When it comes to the topic of paying for college, knowledge is power. What does financial aid mean, anyway? What’s the difference between loans and grants? And how do scholarships work?

Learning basic financial aid lingo will help you understand your options and which might be best for you. Let’s get started.

What is financial aid?

When we talk about financial aid, we’re talking about ways you can get assistance paying for college.

Financial aid comes in many forms. Most forms of financial aid are based on your income or your family’s income, your GPA, academic achievements, and/or transcripts.

What are the main types of financial aid?


Grants are financial aid that does not have to repaid. 

The grant amount is based on financial need, cost of attendance, and enrollment status.


A loan is a form of financial aid that must be repaid with interest. There are both student loans and parent loans.

Student loans do not need to be paid back until the student graduates, withdraws from college, or drops below full-time status.


Scholarships are gift aid and do not have to be repaid. These awards are based on different factors including merit, financial need, and other factors like talent or community service.

They are awarded by institutions, governments, private individuals, foundations, and community organizations. There are numerous scholarships opportunities at Colorado State University and in local communities.

Work Study

Work study is a part-time job opportunity. Work study may be included in a student’s financial aid award. The student can then earn that award amount by working on campus throughout the academic year.

How can I get financial aid?

Complete a FAFSA

The most-important step to take is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once you complete it, you can have your results sent to various colleges that you may be interested in.

Once you’re admitted, colleges will use your FAFSA to calculate any need-based financial aid you’ll receive. They’ll send you a summary via your financial aid award.

Fill out scholarship applications

As you now know from our definition above, there are two types of scholarships: automatic and those requiring a separate application. At CSU, you simply have to apply for admission to be eligible for automatic merit scholarships. When it comes to outside scholarships, you must search and apply separately.

Take a look at these tips for searching and applying for CSU scholarships and outside scholarships.

Get good grades

It’s important to stay on track and attain the highest grades you can in classes. The higher your grades and academic achievements, the better chance you’ll have of receiving merit scholarships and other outside scholarships that may have a merit component.

What are some other strategies to pay for college?

Students employ a wide range of methods outside of financial aid to help offset college costs. No one strategy is right for everyone and you should decide what works best for you.

Some students work part time during the academic year as well as during the summer to offset college costs. Some also get help in the form of family savings. Others take AP/IB courses in high school to earn college credit or start out at a community college and then transfer to CSU.

As you consider costs, admissions and financial aid counselors are here to help you nail down the right strategies for your situation.

Learn more about financial aid

Visit our Office of Financial Aid website.