Cash or Check? How You Get Your Financial Aid Money

financial aid disbursement

Once you’re approved for student aid, it’s time to ask the next big question — how is financial aid disbursed?

Yes, it’s good to know you’re getting help paying for college. But what’s even better is knowing when to expect your financial aid, and how you’re going to receive it. That’s how you plan and that’s how you budget.

There is no universal answer. Financial aid disbursement rules vary depending on the type of student aid you receive.

Student loans and grants

Any financial aid you’ve been awarded through a student loan or grant will automatically go toward your tuition, fees, and room and board. Your disbursement is typically split into at least two equal payments over the course of an academic year.

30-day delay

If you are a first-year undergraduate borrowing money for the first time, you could be looking at a delay of 30 days before the loan is disbursed. (That’s 30 days from the first day of the term for which the financial aid is awarded).

Check with your school’s financial aid office to find out whether this 30-day delay applies.

Entrance counseling

First-time borrowers of Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans are expected to go through entrance counseling before financial aid disbursement.

The same is true for graduate and professional students who take out Direct PLUS Loans for the first time; they must complete entrance counseling, too.

Other disbursement requirements

To avoid any potential disbursement delays, make sure you do all of the following as soon as possible:

  • Register for the number of classes needed to meet the credit requirements to receive your student aid.
  • Resolve any issues with your Free Application for Federal Student Aid so your FAFSA disbursement is timely.
  • Sign your Master Promissory Note (MPN) for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans.

If you’re not sure whether any or all of these requirements have been met, contact your school’s financial aid office.

When your loans are disbursed, you will get two notifications: One from the school letting you know your aid has been disbursed and one from your loan servicer confirming the disbursement.


If there are any funds from grant or student loan disbursements left over once tuition, fees, and room and board are paid, the remaining balance will be paid directly to you in the form of cash or check, or deposited into your bank account.

You can do one of two things with your refund:

  • Use it wisely to cover other college expenses, like books, supplies, and transportation.
  • Return student loan money you don’t need for college expenses. Sure, you could find something to do with it, but if everything is covered you’re better off returning what you can to minimize your student loan debt and interest fees.

Parent PLUS Loans

Similar to student loans, financial aid awarded through Parent PLUS Loans must be automatically applied to tuition, fees, and room and board first. Also similar to student loans, disbursements of Parent PLUS Loans are typically split into at least two payments over the course of the academic year.

Any remaining balance is refunded to parent borrowers unless otherwise instructed. Parents can request that refunds be made directly to the student, instead.

Unlike student loans, Parent PLUS Loans do not require entrance counseling.


Unlike other forms of financial aid that automatically go toward your college costs, the money you earn on your work-study job must be paid directly to you unless you request otherwise.

Expect to be paid by cash or check. If you prefer, you can ask the school to deposit your payments into your bank account. Either way, you must be paid at least once a month.

What paying you means, of course, is that you have complete control over how your work-study money is spent. If you would rather relieve yourself of this responsibility, you can ask your school if they will put the money directly toward tuition, fees, or room and board instead.


  • Don’t know when to expect your financial aid disbursement?
    Contact your school’s financial aid office to find out the disbursement schedule.
  • Problem with a disbursement?
    Maybe the student aid you received is the wrong amount, or maybe a payment hasn’t shown up at all. Whatever your issue with a student aid disbursement, contact your school’s financial aid office to see about resolving it.
  • Not sure how to use your refund?
    Financial aid is intended to go toward college expenses, so use it accordingly.

Maybe you need your refund to cover the cost of textbooks, equipment, and supplies. Maybe you need a new computer. If you live off-campus, maybe you need to use your refund for rent, utilities, or groceries.

In other words, use your student loan disbursement for things you really need. To help you figure out what that is, get yourself a basic college budget.

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