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Financial Aid Primer: #2. Financial Aid Acronyms and Terms


As you go through the financial aid application process, you’ll encounter many acronyms and phrases that will be new to you.  Knowing what the basics mean will help you to get through the process more quickly and successfully.  So, following is a brief “cheat sheet” with key acronyms along with their explanations.
FAFSAFree Application for Federal Student Aid.  As mentioned in the previous financial aid blog post, the FAFSA is the first step in applying for financial aid.  The application requires basic financial information that helps college financial aid offices decide what your need is and how much federal aid you should receive.  The on-line application can be found at and becomes available on January 1st of the year of matriculation.
FAFSA PIN:  Before filling out your FAFSA application, the student and parent must first get a personal identification number (PIN).  You can get this PIN by going to
CSS PROFILE:  A form required by selected colleges and universities which requests more detailed financial information to supplement the data provided on the FAFSA.  While the FAFSA is used to determine the awarding of federal aid, the PROFILE is used to assess the allocation of institutional aid (funds from the school itself).  The PROFILE is administered by The College Board, and can be accessed by going to  Note that not all schools ask for submission of the PROFILE.  Many simply rely on the FAFSA for their information, and in some cases, schools will ask you to fill out their own proprietary form in place of the PROFILE.
SAR: Student Aid Report.  All students who file a FAFSA will receive a SAR.  The SAR reflects the information that the family provided on the FAFSA as well as what the government believes the family should provide to fund the student’s college education (EFC – see below).
ISIR: Institutional Student Information Record. ISIRs are electronically transmitted to colleges and contain processed student information reported on the FAFSA.  This is the equivalent of the SAR, but for colleges instead of students.
IDOC:  Institutional Documentation Service. IDOC is a service provided by The College Board that collects, scans, and bundles students’ financial aid supporting documentation and submits that information to participating colleges.  Students will be notified by the institution to which they are applying if they should use the IDOC service.
EFC: Expected Family Contribution. Using the financial information that is provided in the FAFSA by the family and employing a set federal methodology, the government determines the amount of money it feels the family can contribute to the student’s education.  Based on this number, financial aid offices will then establish a student’s level of need and allocate (or not) additional federal funds to help pay for the student’s education.  Institutions that use PROFILE, may determine a different EFC based on their own methodology for the awarding of institutional dollars.
COA or COE: Cost of Attendance or Cost of Education.  This is used by financial aid offices and represents the fully-loaded cost of attending college for one school year.  It includes: tuition, room, board, books, supplies, travel, and personal expenses. The COA/COE is different at each institution and for each student, since individual student circumstances vary.
How do colleges establish the baseline for what your need is to attend their institution?  Using the acronyms we just learned, it’s a very simple equation:


Need-Based Aid: This is aid awarded to students and families based on estimated need as established by information given either on the FAFSA or PROFILE.
Merit Aid: Colleges want to build their classes around certain types of students.  Merit aid is awarded by colleges to students who they would like to have on campus because of their special abilities and characteristics.  Colleges can decide to award merit aid for any number of reasons including academic, scholastic, and arts achievement.  Some schools have clear guidelines about what it takes to earn a merit scholarships, but the awarding of merit aid is mostly unpredictable.
Gap:  Not all schools are able to meet the full need of students as established by the FAFSA or PROFILE process.  The “gap” is the amount of unmet need in the aid package between the Cost of Attendance and the Expected Family Contribution.  If full need is met by a school, then the “gap” is zero.


Professional Judgment:  This refers to the authority of a school’s financial aid administrator to make adjustments to the data elements on the FAFSA and to override a student’s dependency status. The net affect of Professional Judgment may be an adjustment to the EFC which can ultimately alter the make-up of the financial aid award.
This list is a good start as we begin to dig a little further into the world of financial aid.  Use it when you file for financial aid, and reference it as you read through future blog posts about financial aid.
Andrea Aronson
College Admissions Advisor, Westfield, NJ


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