Key Terms


Process of ranking accepted students with the goal of attracting the most desirable prospects with merit aid. For example, if a college wants 500 new freshmen, it will accept 1,500 and offer their top 500 a financial aid package.

Application Score

The system used by a college to rank its applicants. Each college’s system is different but most use some variant of admission cut-off marks. Scoring above the mark means acceptance, below denied. Students who score between the marks often have their fate decided by an admissions committee.

Buying Freshmen

Students who are most attractive to a college receive the best financial aid packages. Specifically, they are offered more grants or scholarships and less work study or loans. Alternatively, this can take the form of large tuition discounts.

Cost of Attendance

The total cost for a particular school. This includes tuition as well as room & board, books, materials, transportation, meal plans, and assorted other fees.

Dependent Students

A student who is claimed as a Dependent for tax purposes. Both the parents’ and the student’s income and assets are evaluated when determining how much a family can contribute towards college costs, sometimes even if divorced. Unique familial situations can be complex and often depend on the chosen college. Most college-bound high school graduates fall under the “dependent” category.

Expected Family Contribution

The amount colleges judge a student and their family are capable of paying towards the cost of attendance. This calculation stems from the FAFSA and remains constant regardless of where a student applies.


The basic starting point for any student applying for college, the FAFSA grants families access to Federal aid as well as certain state and campus aid programs. Students may also be required to fill out additional forms such as the Financial Aid Profile (FAP) if a college or the state requires additional information before awarding their own funds.


Generally a good thing, this means a student’s record is marked for special consideration and separated from the overall applicant pool. Common flags include athletics, talent, legacy, and under-represented minorities.

Financial Aid Leveraging

The practice of cutting the sticker price for a specifically-targeted group of applicants, giving the impression they are receiving relatively more financial aid without actually increasing the dollar amount. Simply put, a university’s attempt to increase admissions without increasing financial aid. Alternatively, this strategy may also reduce overall financial aid distributed in a year to test if that lower number can become the new baseline.

Full Time Student

Students enrolled in a minimum of 12 credit hours at their college.

Gender Balance

Refers to certain universities’ requirement that a student body be comprised of certain male/female ratios. Admissions officers, along with the financial aid department, then work to build a class along these parameters.

Grants & Scholarships

Financial aid awarded a student based on GPA, test scores, activities, etc. Though these awards are theoretically independent from EFC, it’s not uncommon to see these numbers adjust according to a family’s individual financial status.

Independent Students

A student who files their own taxes.  Only the student’s income and assets (along with that of their spouse) are evaluated when determining EFC.  Generally, students must be at least 24 by December 31 of the award year to qualify as an independent.  

Legacy Rating

Children of alumni are called legacies and may be afforded an advantage in the admissions process (though generally not in the financial aid process). The size of the advantage may potentially be determined by parents’ generosity in alumni funding drives or donations.


These are sums of money that must be repaid.  Considered financial aid due to favorable repayment terms offered at interest rates below the commercial rate. Loans can be an effective means of wealth building and management, if utilized intelligently.

Merit-based Aid

Merit-based financial aid programs determine eligibility by evaluating a student’s ability/potential, based on academic records, or athletic or artistic ability.  Individual characteristics, such as ethnicity, are sometimes considered.

Need-based Aid

Financial aid determined on a family’s income, assets, and resources. 

Part Time Student

A student must take at least 6 credit hours to be part time and qualify for Federal aid.

Preferential Packaging

The polite term for buying freshmen. 54% of colleges admit to following this practice.


Wages paid to a student for a usually minimum-wage job provided by the college. Because this money is earned, it is not repaid. The work commitment is fulfilled once the student has earned the amount of the work/study awarded. It’s always a good idea to be active about any work/study opportunities, seeking positions that supplement a student’s studies.