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Financial Aid Terms

Let Us Translate.

We get it. Applying for financial aid involves navigating new things and learning new vocabulary. Let us help you better understand the process by defining and demystifying these terms. And don't forget - the Office of Admission is here to support you throughout the financial aid process. 

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

A federal form required from all students who wish to apply for need-based financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study awards. The FAFSA is used to determine how much financial aid the federal and/or state government can be provided to a student.

CSS Profile

A web-based financial aid form required by some colleges, including Carnegie Mellon, in addition to the FAFSA.

Cost of Attendance

The total cost of attending a college for one year, including tuition, housing, books, transportation, fees and personal expenses. The listed cost of attendance on a college’s website doesn’t consider individual students’ financial aid. Your personal cost of attendance may be less than the listed cost of attendance.

Demonstrated Need

The difference between the cost of attending a college and your expected family contribution. Carnegie Mellon is committed to meeting the demonstrated need of all financial aid-eligible students.

Unmet Need

The difference between the cost of attendance and a student's (and family's) ability to pay. 

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The amount of money a family could be expected to cover for one year of college costs, based on the data gathered from the FAFSA and CSS Profile. This figure often differs from the actual amount you will be required to pay.

Financial Aid Offer

A statement from a college that outlines the type and amount of financial aid the school is able to provide an admitted or waitlisted student.

Financial Aid Package

The total amount of financial aid a student receives, including one or more grants, loans or work-study in a "package" to help meet the student's need.


A form of financial aid that is usually based on merit, sometimes in combination with need, which does not need to be repaid.


A form of financial aid based on need that does not have to be repaid. A grant may be provided by federal or state governments, an institution or a foundation. Grants may also be known as gift aid.

Federal Pell Grant

A federal grant awarded to students with substantial financial need, as determined by the FAFSA.


A type of financial aid that is available to students and to the parents of students that must be repaid when either the student finishes school or ceases to be enrolled at least half-time.

Parent PLUS Loan

A low-interest federal loan available to parents of dependent students that can be used to cover any costs not already covered by the student's financial aid package.

Subsidized Loan

A type of loan for which a student does not pay the interest while enrolled at least half-time.

Unsubsidized Loan

A type of loan that is not need-based and for which the student is responsible for the interest accrued while in college.

Work Study

A form of financial aid that allows a student to work on-campus or with approved off-campus employers in order to earn money to pay for expenses related to the cost of attendance.

Dependent Student

The status of most first-year college students; used for financial aid calculation. Dependent students must report their parents' income and assets on their financial aid applications.

Independent Student

A status used to determine financial aid. An independent student must meet any one of the following criteria as defined by the federal government:

  • 24 years of age
  • Married
  • Has status of a graduate or professional student
  • Has legal dependents other than a spouse
  • Is an orphan or ward of the court (or has been a ward of the court until age 18)
  • Is an emancipated minor
  • Is homeless or a veteran

Independent students report only their own income and assets (and those of a spouse if applicable) when applying for financial aid.

Custodial Parent

If a student's parents are divorced or separated, the custodial parent is the one with whom the student lived with the most during the past 12 months.

Non-Custodial Parent

If a student's parents are divorced or separated, the non-custodial parent is the one with whom the student lived with less during the past 12 months.

Full-Time Student

An undergraduate student who takes a minimum of 12 credits (the equivalent of 36 units at Carnegie Mellon) per semester.