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What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money from federal, state and private institutions that's used to pay educational costs. There are five major categories of financial aid, and specific types of aid within each of those categories. Sources of financial aid include:

  • The federal government
  • The state government
  • Colleges and universities
  • Community groups, including religious and civic organizations, professional associations and corporations

People are usually familiar with the first three sources of aid. But they sometimes overlook the money available from community sources. Kathy Ruby, the director of financial aid at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, says billions of dollars in outside scholarships go unclaimed because students haven't applied for them.

"They're out there, but you have to have to look for them. It takes research," she says.

The federal government updates great resources including brochures, videos, fact sheets and worksheets on financial aid each year.