Need-Based vs. Non-Need-Based Financial Aid: Here’s the Difference

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The difference between need-based and non-need-based financial aid boils down to the cost of your school and your family’s financial situation. For need-based financial aid, the federal government determines whether or not you need help paying for college based on your family’s financial situation. By contrast, non-need-based financial aid is meant to assist you financially no matter how much money your family earns.

With rising college costs, it can feel like you need as much help as possible paying for college. However, need-based financial aid comes down to the discretion of the federal government and the cost of attendance at your school. So you may not qualify for as much need-based aid as you think.

Read on to learn about both types of financial aid, and how you can get the most aid possible.

What is need-based financial aid?
How is need-based financial aid determined?
What is non-need-based financial aid?
How do colleges give out non-need-based aid?
Bottom line: How to get the most financial aid possible

What is need-based financial aid?

The need-based financial aid definition is exactly what it sounds like — it’s doled out based on your financial need. Some colleges promise to cover all or most of your full financial need, while others provide aid for less.

Each college’s financial aid office puts together your financial aid package. It could include a mix of federal, state, institutional and private aid.

Need-based financial aid might include any of the following:

  • Federal Pell Grant: Pell Grants tend to go to students that have a major financial need. Unlike a loan, it usually does not need to get repaid. The maximum award for the 2019-2020 school year is $6,195.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): You can receive between $100 and $4,000 per year through the FSEOG program. However, only some colleges participate.
  • Direct subsidized loan: Interest will not start accruing on these federal loans until you’re out of school and the six-month grace period has ended.
  • Federal work-study: This program provides you with a part-time, on-campus or off-campus job, so you can earn money to put toward school or living costs. The program emphasizes jobs that either serve the public interest or which are related to your course of study.

In addition to looking at federal need-based programs, consider the loans or grants that states, private organizations and nonprofits grant to low-income students.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the MASSGrant program gives grants to qualifying state residents with a family contribution equal to or lower than $5,486. Meanwhile, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides up to $40,000 per year to high-achieving students that can demonstrate significant financial need.

Whether it’s federal, state or private, need-based aid is largely based on your financial situation. Except in the case of private scholarships, your grades or extracurricular achievements don’t factor in.

How is need-based financial aid determined?

To figure out your financial need, most schools look at your FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid; a few schools also require the CSS Profile. After filling out the FAFSA, you’ll get an Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC.

As the name suggests, your EFC is how much your family is expected to pay toward college. The difference between the cost of tuition and your EFC is your financial need.

Let’s say a school costs $50,000 per year, and your EFC is $25,000. In this case, your financial need would be $25,000.

Most colleges will cover at least part of that $25,000 with need-based financial aid. Plus, they might provide additional non-need-based financial aid.

If your school doesn’t come through with the financial aid you need, you’ll need to make up the difference another way — like taking out private student loans or choosing a less expensive college.

What is non-need-based financial aid?

Non-need-based financial aid, like its need-based counterpart, is offered on both the federal and institutional level. Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, provides the following types of non-need-based aid:

A financial aid office might include these loans in your financial aid package after it has exhausted need-based funding. Plus, it may award merit-based grants or scholarships based on your high school performance or community service.

Some organizations even give scholarships for unusual reasons. For instance, you could win scholarship money for being a twin or winning the best DIY prom contest.

Again, whether it’s an unsubsidized loan you have to repay or a scholarship you don’t, none of the aid on this list is based on financial need.

How do colleges give out non-need-based aid?

Unlike need-based aid, non-need-based aid doesn’t look at your EFC, or estimated family contribution. Instead, your eligibility is based on the difference between the school’s cost of attendance and the amount of financial aid you’ve received so far, whether it’s from the college itself or an outside organization.

For example, let’s say your school’s cost of attendance is $20,000 per year, and you’ve received $15,000 in need-based financial aid.

In this scenario, you could qualify for up to $5,000 in non-need-based aid. Of course, you’re not guaranteed to get that $5,000 — or even anything — but you are eligible for these additional funds.

Bottom line: How to get the most financial aid possible

To some extent, your financial aid package is out of your hands. Each college sets its own policies, and the financial aid offices will notify you of its decision.

But there are important steps you can take to qualify for aid, whether it’s based on financial need or not. Here are the top six:

  1. File the FAFSA as soon as possible. This application becomes available on Oct. 1. Submit it early, as some aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
  2. Find out if your school requires the CSS Profile. Some colleges ask for the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. They look at this document, along with the FAFSA, to determine financial aid.
  3. Communicate with the financial aid office. If you haven’t applied yet, speak with financial aid offices to learn about their policies. If you experience changes in your financial situation after submitting the FAFSA, let them know. They might be able to adjust your award.
  4. Use the FAFSA4Caster tool. This useful tool helps you estimate the cost of attendance at colleges around the country. You’ll get a sense of how much need-based financial aid you can get from each school. Use this info to be strategic about where you apply.
  5. Do your best in high school. You could end up getting serious merit-based aid for your achievements. Schools like Boston University and Duke University offer full-ride scholarships to students with a record of academic and extracurricular achievement.
  6. Apply for outside scholarships. Many organizations at the local and national level award scholarships to students. Speak with your school counselor and browse scholarship search engines for opportunities.

By understanding the different types of financial aid — and being proactive when you apply to colleges — you can seriously reduce the cost of your education.

At some point, you may feel as if you’ve exhausted your options for both need-based and non-need-based financial aid. If this sounds like you, and you still need financial help, you may want to consider private loans.

In general, private loans shouldn’t be your first choice when it comes to paying for college, but they can make it possible to fund your education when other funding sources fall short. If you’d like to learn more about this option, take advantage of the information here at our list of best private student loans.

Sarah Sharkey contributed to this report.

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Here are our top student loan lenders of 2021!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.04% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.13% – 11.23%*,2Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit SallieMae

3.84% – 9.40%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.05% – 11.44%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.22% – 11.66%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.76% – 7.14%6Undergraduate and Graduate

VISIT CITIZENS

1.24% – 11.99%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust 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.

Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
 
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. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student 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 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. 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 4/22/2021. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown.  If you choose to complete an application, we will conduct a hard credit pull, which may affect your credit score. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.


4 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.22% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.37% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.12% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.52% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.29% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 10.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.22% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 4/1/2021. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)..


6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.76% – 7.14% (2.76% – 7.14% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.01% – 7.50% (3.01% – 7.50% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.19% – 6.73% (2.19% – 6.73% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 2.89% – 7.09% (2.89%-7.09% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.36% – 9.54% (1.36% – 8.82% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.13% – 9.84% (4.13% – 9.12% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.36% – 8.34% (1.36% – 8.04% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.03% – 8.64% (4.03% – 8.34% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.10% – 7.41% (2.10%-7.41% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.69% – 7.83% (4.69% – 7.83% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.45% – 9.60% (4.45% – 9.53% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.38% – 12.81% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.55% – 7.05% (3.55% – 6.77% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.07% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of March 1, 2021, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.11%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%. 

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer.  Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank participating school.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.


7 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. Get a cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan when you earn at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) in any academic period covered by the loan. Limitations Apply. Visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for terms and conditions.
  3. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate, graduate, health professions, law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of April 1, 2021. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Your APR will be determined after you apply. Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Private Consolidation Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants who are approved and choose a shorter repayment term, and include a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of April 1, 2021. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Your APR will be determined after you apply. Visit Discover.com/student-loans/consolidation.html for more information, including up-to-date interest rates and APRs.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.