The staggering cost of higher education causes many students to apply for financial aid. The financial aid process starts by filling out the free application for federal student aid, commonly known as FAFSA, whether you're an undergraduate or graduate student. Upon review of your financial profile, your college may award and disburse a certain amount of money to you -- usually a combination of grants, loans and scholarships -- some of which you have to budget throughout the semester. Some colleges and universities award financial aid by academic year while others, like community colleges, may award financial aid each semester.
Tuition and Fees
Normally, you register for classes before the college receives your financial aid funds. When the funds arrive -- from various lenders, the federal government or scholarship foundations -- your college deducts tuition and fees first. Federal regulations governing financial aid require you to reimburse the college if financial aid pays your tuition and you drop a class or drop out early in the semester; if your financial aid is more than the amount of your tuition and fees, some colleges may hold off crediting the remainder of your financial aid to you until a few weeks of the semester have passed.
You can use financial aid to pay for housing, whether you live on or off campus. If you live in a campus dormitory that comes with a meal plan, the college deducts the cost from your financial aid package. If you plan to live off campus, after tuition and fees are paid from your financial aid funds, your college credits the remainder to you in the form of a paper check or direct deposit to your bank account. Even if your financial aid package includes funds specifically for housing -- such is the case with some graduate students who apply for student loans to use specifically for housing -- the money still must go through your college's accounting office before being given to you.
Books and Supplies
Like housing, you can use your financial aid overage to pay for books and supplies. Some colleges allow you to charge books and supplies at the campus bookstore in anticipation of a financial aid remainder. For example, if you use financial aid to attend culinary school, and your campus bookstore sells knife kits and uniforms, you can charge these items to your bookstore account and pay off the balance when the financial aid funds show up in your bank account. If you wish to buy books off campus, you'll have to use your own money, such as a credit card, and pay off the card when the funds arrive.
Other Related Expenses
Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Education says that financial aid can be used for reasonable college-related expense. So, you can use financial aid to pay for anything you need to attend college successfully -- from transportation to a new computer. If you're a disabled student, you can use financial aid to pay for any equipment that enhances your campus experience. You also can use financial aid to pay for study abroad tuition, room and board. You can also use financial aid earned through a campus work study job to pay for a broad range of college expenses as you see fit.