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6 Answers to Important Financial Aid Questions

Learn about how financial aid works, including how loan money is applied, how loans affect taxes and accessing a 529 plan.
Aug. 9, 2018
Loans, Student Loans
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Your college tuition bill isn’t due until right before the school year starts. That leaves plenty of time for you and your family to finalize financial aid details. Here are six basic, but crucial, things to know about using student loans, scholarships and more to pay for college.

1. When I take out a student loan, where does the money go?

Student-loan dollars go directly to your school and are typically applied to outstanding tuition and fees first. If there’s money left over, the bursar’s office will issue you a refund of the remaining balance through a check, debit card or electronic bank account transfer.

Don’t panic if you get the tuition bill before your financial aid disbursement. Colleges cannot credit federal aid to students’ accounts sooner than 10 days before classes start.

» MORE: Types of student loans: which is best for you?

2. Can I use my student loans to cover living expenses?

Yes, if there’s money left after tuition and fees. If you’re living on campus, the school will apply that money toward room and board costs. Students living off campus will receive a loan refund and they should plan to use it for necessities like rent, food and transportation.

However, just because you can take out loans for living expenses, doesn’t mean you should if you can cover those costs another way. Remember, you’ll have to repay anything you borrow, plus interest.

» MORE: How to use student loans for living expenses

3. How do I get money out of my 529 account?

Simply contact your plan provider — you can make a withdrawal online or you can make a request via phone or mail. The complicated part is figuring out how and when to use 529 savings — that’s a topic worth consulting a financial advisor or tax professional about.

Money you withdraw from a 529 plan is tax-free if used for qualified higher education expenses. You’ll owe federal income taxes and a 10% penalty on earnings from the withdrawn amount if you use the money for nonqualified expenses like transportation, and fraternity or sorority dues.

» MORE: 529 plan rules

4. What should I do if I didn’t get enough financial aid to cover my college costs?

First, appeal your aid award letter with your college if your financial situation has significantly changed since filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

If your situation is largely the same, but you need more college funds, contact the school’s financial aid office to ensure you’re aware of all options. Some colleges may offer more financial help if you show proof of a better aid package from another institution.

Beyond that, be creative when pooling college funds. For example, apply for scholarships and plan to work part-time during school. As a last resort, you may need private student loans. If you go this route, compare your options before borrowing to make sure you find a loan with the best interest rate you qualify for.

If you still have a gap to fill before school starts, many campuses also offer payment plans that allow families to swap a lump-sum tuition bill for smaller, monthly installments.

» MORE: What to do if you didn’t get enough financial aid

5. Do I have to pay taxes on financial aid money I receive?

Generally, no. Student loans, and most gift aid dollars, aren’t considered taxable income. You’ll owe taxes on grants and scholarships only if they total more than your qualified education expenses.

Income earned from a federal work-study job is taxable. Employers will deduct taxes from your paychecks, and you should report work-study income when filing taxes.

Money earned through a work-study job won’t count as income on your next FAFSA. In other words, a work-study job won’t prevent you from qualifying for financial aid in the future.

» MORE: What is work-study?

6. Can I get financial aid as a part-time student?

Yes, but you may not get as much money. For instance, part-time students who qualify for federal Pell Grants will receive a prorated amount based on the number of credit hours they’re taking.

Students need to be enrolled at least half-time, meaning they’re taking classes worth at least six credits each term, to be eligible for federal student loans.


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