What is the Difference Between Gift-Aid and Self-Help Aid?

There are many different forms of financial aid out there to help students pay for college. A majority of that aid comes from the federal government and the colleges themselves, though aid can also come from private sources as well.

There are two major categories of aid: gift-aid and self-help aid. But aid is aid, right? Either will help you pay for college? Well, yes, but the two aren’t quite the same. Let’s break it down.

What is Gift-Aid?

The benefits of this form of aid is right in the title: “gift.” It is a gift of aid, which means you don’t have to pay it back when you graduate. It’s essentially free money. Gift aid can be awarded on the basis of merit or need. Merit, meaning you earn the aid based on a certain talent, academic accolade, being part of a certain group, etc. Need-based meaning you’re in a financial situation that requires aid in order to attend a college. There are two major forms of gift-aid.


Perhaps the most famous form of aid, scholarships are the ideal way to help pay for a college education. There are thousands upon thousands of scholarship opportunities available, ranging from standard to bizarre—there’s a duck-calling scholarship (click here for more unique scholarships)? From a myriad of sources, both local and national, scholarships are just waiting for you to apply to them.

College Raptor has numerous articles about scholarships, including: where to start your scholarship search, how to increase your odds of qualifying for more scholarships, how many to apply to, and much more.


Grants are, in general, more awarded more often on the basis of need rather than merit. Well-known grants include the Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants that help students to college through their funds. There are also state and institutional programs in place to do just the same.

The biggest sponsors of scholarships and grants are the government and the schools themselves—of the $122.7 billion in scholarships and grants awards given out in 2013-14, 40% of that total came from the government, and 39% from the colleges and universities, leaving the remaining 21% to come from state and private sources.

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What is Self-Help Aid?

Where gift-aid is “free money” that doesn’t have to be paid back, self-help aid (as you may have guessed) does require some form of repayment. Self-help aid comes in two different forms: student loans and work-study programs.

Student Loans

Taking out a loan gives students the money they need to pay for their education, temporarily at least. Once the student graduates, they enter a repayment period in which that money needs to be paid back to the lender, with interest. There are private loans and federal student loans that you can use to pay for college, as well as programs that mix the two.

If you decide to take out a student loan, make sure you do plenty of research before hand to avoid the pitfalls that can sometimes come with loans. Student debt is a very real problem for American students, and other forms of financial aid should probably be explored before settling on student loans to cover all the costs.

Work-Study Program

This form of aid is earned by students, well, working! During their school year, students can work part time through a Federal Work Study program (FWS) to earn money that can either funnel straight to their bank account or towards outstanding school fees like tuition. Students don’t have to pay the money back, however, as they earned it through their hours of effort and dedication! All it costs is time and attention.

Want to know how much you—that’s right, you personally—might pay to attend a certain college? Use our free match tool to discover the money you could save on your college education!


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