It’s been said, according to sources which site a Chinese proverb, that “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”  Apparently it’s a loose translation, since in a Chinese text, Confucius is recorded as stating, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things” (Zi Lu, 3).

That’s quite powerful.

There’s also another saying in business that if there is no perceived difference between two products or services, then lowest price wins.  That can be philosophically expanded to mean if two entities are exactly alike, there may not be a need for one to exist.  We see this happen in business when companies like banks merge, and then close branches that may be near one another after the merger is finalized.

Therefore, the terms “financial aid,” “tuition assistance” and “scholarship” mean different things precisely because they’re different terms; yet, many school administrators use these terms interchangeably, in much the same way that “apply,” “enroll,” and “register” are used interchangeably, yet define significantly different actions.

What’s the difference?

Financial Aid is based on a family’s financial need, which should be determined by an impartial third-party company that specializes in this process.  This maintains an objective standard to be applied to all families based on the information they provide.  Using a third-party service also keeps the school from needing to protect personally identifiable information (PII) such as social security numbers since tax documentation may be required as supporting information to the data provided on the application.  Schools can still use a committee to determine financial aid awards, but they can make decisions based on data, then make adjustments according to any special circumstances demonstrated by reviewing objective data – not subjective situations.  It also prevents the school from having to store and maintain years of financial data.  Should there be a security breach of information the school is storing, it can be held liable for any damages that result.

Tuition Assistance can be defined as ways to help the family to pay the tuition they’re expected to pay.  For example, a school’s tuition may be $4,000 per child, and the family receives $1,000 in financial aid based on the family’s calculated financial need.  Yet, parents may participate in other programs to assist them in paying the $300 per month they will be expected to pay.  Some schools have scrip programs or other fundraising initiatives which can help families fulfill their tuition payment obligation.  In this respect, even a tuition payment plan provided by a third-party that specializes in tuition capture, payment options, real-time reporting and family follow-up can be considered as a tuition assistance program.

Scholarship is usually provided to students that may or may not have financial need, yet have demonstrated academic excellence or other prowess or service recognition.  Some schools call financial aid a “scholarship” because it is required of a scholarship-awarding entity.  However, there is usually some type of academic performance level or other criteria, such as service, which must be maintained, allowing a student to qualify for it for the following school year.

As an example, you may not want to offer a scholarship to child that may not meet a certain level of academic performance or doesn’t participate in a program to serve those in need, nor provide need-based financial aid to a student of a family that has a significant ability to afford the full tuition amount.

If you’re looking for singular catch-all word, then use Financial Assistance. You could use this term as the “umbrella” for all three of the constructs that have been mentioned, such as, “Our school offers three types of financial assistance programs to help you afford the cost of educating your student.”  And suddenly, you have multiple constructs to help parents be able to enroll their students, instead of “discounting” your tuition with no idea as to how those amounts will be covered.  Maintaining the “tuition discounting” mindset is a blueprint for school closure.