Your college or career school—not the U.S. Department of Education—will distribute your financial aid.

How you receive your aid will depend on the type of aid—grants, student loans, work-study, or parent loans.

Receiving Aid

You’ve filled out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form, received an aid offer from your school, and told the school which financial aid you want to accept. Now what?

When will I receive my financial aid?
How can I pay for textbooks and other course materials if I don’t get my financial aid as soon as classes start?
How will I receive my financial aid?
     Grants and Student Loans
     Parent (PLUS) Loans

When will I receive my financial aid?

Generally, your grant or loan will cover a full academic year and your school will pay out your money in at least two payments called disbursements. In most cases, your school must pay you at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter). Schools that don’t use traditional terms such as semesters or quarters usually must pay you at least twice per academic year—for instance, at the beginning and midpoint of your academic year.

  • If you’re a parent taking out a Direct PLUS Loan to help pay for your child’s education expenses, your loan funds will be disbursed according to the same type of schedule (usually, at least twice per academic year).
  • If you’re a first-year undergraduate student and a first-time borrower, you may have to wait 30 days after the first day of your enrollment period (semester, trimester, etc.) for your first disbursement. Check with your school to see whether this rule applies there. 
  • If you’re a first-time borrower of a Direct Subsidized Loan or a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, you must complete entrance counseling before you receive your first loan disbursement. Similarly, if you are a graduate or professional student taking out a Direct PLUS Loan for the first time, you must complete entrance counseling before receiving your first disbursement. If you are a parent taking out a Direct PLUS Loan to help pay for your child’s education, you will not be required to participate in entrance counseling.

If you’re going to have a work-study job, you’ll be paid at least once a month.

If you don’t receive the type or amount of financial aid you expect to, contact your school. The financial aid office can explain how your aid was determined.

How can I pay for textbooks and other course materials if I don’t get my financial aid as soon as classes start?

Schools that participate in the federal student aid programs must provide a way for you to obtain your books and supplies by the seventh day of the term if

  1. you are eligible for disbursement (the payment of your financial aid) 10 days before the term begins and
  2. you will have a credit balance after your financial aid is disbursed and applied to your tuition, fees, and other school charges that it automatically gets applied to.

Your school can tell you if (a) and (b) above apply to you.

How will my school get my financial aid funds to me so I can buy my course materials?

You should ask your financial aid office about this, because it varies from school to school, but some possibilities include the following:

  • If the school offers a bookstore voucher or other means for students to receive the books and supplies through the school or its bookstore, you could obtain your materials that way.
  • Even if the school’s preferred arrangement is to provide vouchers or other means for you to get your course materials through the school or its bookstore, the school must provide you the opportunity to opt out, receive a check from the school, and obtain the books and supplies on your own.*

Regardless, the amount the school is required to disburse in the first week will be the lesser of

  • your presumed credit balance (as determined by your school) or
  • the amount needed to purchase your books and supplies (either the actual amount or the “books and supplies” element of your cost of attendance as determined by your school).

*There are two very limited exceptions to the requirement that students be permitted to obtain materials on their own:

  1. when the school can demonstrate a compelling health and safety reason for obtaining materials through the institution or its supplier
  2. when the school can demonstrate that the materials are not currently available elsewhere or accessible to students via other means

Note: The school must publish the ISBNs for course texts in the online course schedule entry, if the ISBNs are available. (The ISBN, which stands for “International Standard Book Number,” will identify the specific edition of the book that’s required for your class.) This will help you be sure that you’re obtaining the correct edition of the correct book when you search for it on your own. If an ISBN is unavailable, the school should provide the author, title, publisher, and copyright date.

Saving Money on Textbooks and Course Materials

Depending on what materials are available at your school and for your courses, you may have several lower-cost options to obtain your books.

  • If your course uses a hard-copy textbook, consider buying a used copy or renting your textbook from a bookstore or online.
  • Even with new textbooks, you may be able to save money by shopping around.
  • Some schools use open-access texts and online content to offer students further savings over hard-copy textbooks. Open-access texts are available for free.
  • If your course uses paid online content, your school may have negotiated a deal with the publisher that will allow you online access at a fraction of the cost you would pay for a physical book. The paid online content may also come with study tools and other content in addition to the textbook.

Your options for course material formats will vary by school, instructor, and course, so learning what your options are and knowing about any cost-reduction initiatives your school may have can result in significant savings.

How will I receive my financial aid?

It depends on what type of aid you’ll be receiving—grants, student loans, work-study, or parent loans.

Grants and Student Loans

Typically, the college applies your grant or loan money toward your tuition, fees, and (if you live on campus) room and board. Any money left over is paid to you for other expenses.

If your loan is disbursed but then you realize that you don’t need the money after all, you may cancel your loan within 120 days of the disbursement, and no interest or fees will be charged.


Your school must pay you directly unless you request that the school

  • send your payments directly to your bank account or
  • use the money to pay for education-related charges (such as tuition, fees, and room and board) on your student account.
Girl with notebook in wheelchair
If you take out a (student or parent) loan, your (or your child’s) school will notify you in writing each time they disburse part of your loan money. At the same time, they'll provide information about how to cancel all or part of your disbursement if you find you no longer need the full amount. You also will receive a notice from your loan servicer confirming the disbursement.

Parent (PLUS) Loans

In most cases, your child's school will disburse your loan money by crediting it to your child's school account to pay tuition, fees, room, board, and other authorized charges. If there is money left over, the school will pay it to you, usually by check. In some cases, with your permission, the school may disburse the leftover money to your child.