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In life, we face many complicated and difficult decisions. Committing yourself to pursue a higher education is one of those decisions, and can mark a turning point in a person’s life to make the choice to better increase their chances of success in their chosen careers. With those impressive colleges and universities come hefty tuition prices.

Luckily, the United States has developed ways to help ease that burden and allow people to pay off their tuition upon graduation through federal loan programs. Those programs can be difficult to understand, so here is a breakdown to explain exactly what financial aid is, and how it may help you.

What Is It?

In short, financial aid is a way to fund higher education. It’s a form of funding that can be delivered to prospective students through grants and loans, so they can move forward with attending a college or university without having to worry about the cost until their schooling is completed. The requirement to pay back these monetary amounts will depend on what type of financial aid is being paid out.

What Does It Cover?

The amount of financial aid you receive is dependent on many things, therefore this answer fluctuates depending on certain factors, such as how much tuition costs at your school of choice, what you or your guardian’s annual income is, and other financial factors. Low-income students tend to qualify for more federal grants that do not need to be paid back. Middle to high-income students will see loan amounts at quantities intended to make their school more reasonably priced. These can either be offered via federal government loan programs, or loans held privately by banks.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. When it comes to a person receiving a full-ride scholarship intended to cover all aspects of your higher education costs, with the condition that the individual will uphold a certain GPA during their time in school. These are far less commonly seen and are usually reserved for students with high GPA’s and other extracurriculars.

When Do I Pay It Back?

These answers will also vary depending on the type of loan you are taking. Grants or scholarships of any kind do not require paybacks on the contingency that all requirements have been met. Federal loan payments begin once an individual has graduated, with the option to defer payments your first six months fresh out of college. Private bank loans tend to come with stricter payback guidelines, and often do not offer the option to defer.

In short, before committing to your school of choice, be sure to weigh all the risks associated with this huge purchase. Be informed and learn about the financial aid packages you are being offered, and set yourself up for success when it’s time to begin paying them back.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss is the R. Scot Sellers Scholar of Hand Surgery; Chief of Hand Surgery; Vice Chairman & Professor, Brown University. He is the former Dean of Admissions at Brown University Medical School (2004-2012).