Every year, students around the country receive billions of dollars in student financial aid to help pay for college. This assistance comes in the form of scholarships, grants, fellowships, and loans and is provided through many different federal, state, and private bodies. While there are many different types of aid out there, there is one way to apply for and secure assistance.
If you're planning on applying for financial aid, you will need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Continue reading to learn about the FAFSA and how you can use it to secure the maximum financial assistance you're eligible for.
The FAFSA is an online form that serves as a centralized application for multiple kinds of student financial aid. The form collects information on your and/or your parent's or legal guardian's financial circumstances to calculate how much you can contribute toward the cost of your higher education. This Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is then subtracted from the tuition, fees, and related expenses of attending a particular college or university to determine the amount of need-based funding you're eligible for.
The FAFSA is the most important form to complete when it comes to applying for aid. This is because most funders — including federal and state agencies, universities, and private organizations — use it to award financial assistance. The FAFSA provides funders with a student's EFC, after which financial aid departments take into account various factors such as the student's academic performance, references, and enrollment status to make funding offers on a case-by-case basis.
Steps to Filling out the FAFSA
While filling out the FAFSA is a relatively uncomplicated process, there are a few critical preceding steps that require special attention. Completing these steps correctly and well in advance of the deadline can set you up to easily complete and submit your financial aid application.
While filling out the FAFSA is a relatively uncomplicated process, there are a few critical preceding steps that require special attention.
Step 1: Gather Necessary Documents
The FAFSA expects you to provide specifics related to your identity, such as your place of residence, citizenship status, and whether you have any dependents. You must also provide particulars about your financial history, taxes, and filing status. Gathering the following documents beforehand will ensure you have this information when you need it:
Tax return forms such as the IRS 1040 or IRS 1040NR, as well as forms W-2 and 1099 where applicable
Social security cards and driver's licenses for yourself, your parent or guardian, and any dependents
Immigration materials, including green cards, visas, and alien registration numbers if you're not a U.S. citizen
Step 2: Gather Financial Information from Yourself and Others
While tax forms can help give an overall picture of your financial circumstances, collecting additional details about your income and expenses can ensure you qualify for the maximum amount of aid. You should gather materials on any untaxed income, which can include child tax credits, interest-based income, financial gifts, or veteran noneducation benefits such as disability payments.
It's also a good idea to determine the value of any investments and assets, such as those in real estate, stocks, and bonds, as well as secure records of cash holdings in savings or checking accounts. It's necessary to collect all this information for both yourself and your parents or guardians if you're applying for financial aid as a dependent.
Step 3: Create an FSA ID
Once you've gathered all the necessary materials, it's time to create an FSA ID. This is a password and username combination which gives you electronic access to the FAFSA form, as well as an account where you can manage your financial aid.
To create an FSA ID, you will need to sign up on studentaid.gov with your social security and/or phone number and email address. If you're applying for aid as a dependent, your parent or guardian will also need their own FSA ID. It is highly advisable to create these IDs before you fill out the FAFSA to prevent any delays when the time comes to apply for aid.
Step 4: Fill out the FAFSA Online
While the FAFSA can be filled out in paper or PDF formats, it's recommended that you complete the web-based version to avoid any errors. Take special care to avoid mixing up your and your parents' FSA ID, as this can cause delays in your application being processed. The form contains several sections, so it's crucial to input the correct information in the correct place. In general, you will need to:
Provide demographic information about yourself and your parents or guardians
Identify up to 10 prospective schools that you want to receive your FAFSA
Complete the sections on your dependency status and finances
Make sure you sign the FAFSA before submitting it. If you're applying as a dependent, your parents or guardians will also have to sign the form. This can be done electronically using your individual FSA IDs. If your parent or legal guardian does not have a social security number and is unable to create an FSA ID, they will need to sign a printed page which should be mailed to the address listed on the form.
What Kind of Financial Aid Does FAFSA Provide?
The FAFSA is linked to many different types of financial aid provided by various public and private funders. These include federal and state governments, as well as universities, professional organizations, and private funders. In general, you can expect to receive funding in the form of:
Scholarships and grants that can be either one-time or renewable awards that do not have to be paid back
Work-study awards allow students to offset the costs of their education through part-time work
Federal student loans that need to be paid back once you graduate and typically offer various different payment plans
Some students may be eligible for additional types of aid as well. For instance, veterans or members of a military family can qualify for specific scholarships as well as various education benefits in the form of service grants, low-interest rate loans, and deferment plans
FAFSA Aid Eligibility
Contrary to popular belief, financial aid through FAFSA is not limited to students whose families fall in specific income brackets. Indeed, any student can be eligible for assistance as long as their EFC does not cover the annual cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses at their prospective colleges or universities. While there are no income requirements, to be eligible for aid through FAFSA a student must:
Be enrolled or accepted in an accredited undergraduate or graduate program
Provide a valid social security number
Meet the academic requirements for particular funding opportunities
Regardless of whether a student meets the above criteria, certain factors may disqualify them from getting assistance altogether. For example, you are no longer eligible for funding if you currently owe money on a federal student grant or have defaulted on a federal student loan.
Additionally, students who have been convicted of a crime have very limited options when it comes to securing aid through the FAFSA. Their options typically may only include work-study programs or the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant.
What Happens After Submitting the FAFSA?
After submitting the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education begins processing your financial aid application. Depending on whether you filled out a paper or electronic version of the form, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within three to ten business days. Along with the financial and personal details you provided on the FAFSA, this report includes your EFC, so it's essential to make sure all your information appears correctly. If there are any mistakes, this is the time to make corrections.
Once processed, the SAR is sent to the financial aid departments of your selected schools, which, in turn, calculate how much aid you are eligible for based on your EFC and the cost of attending a particular college or university. You can then expect to receive individual aid packages from these schools — though it's important to note that there is no guarantee every institution you listed on your FAFSA will make you an offer.
Each aid offer will include the type of assistance being offered — whether that's a grant, scholarship, or loan — as well as a deadline for acceptance. At this point, you should review your options and determine which aid package fits you best. After you make your decision, the school's financial aid department will contact you to explain how and when the funds will be dispersed, along with information on additional paperwork you may have to fill out.
Appealing FAFSA Decisions
There may be times when an unexpected change, such as a medical expense or loss of income, can shift your financial situation so that the SAR no longer reflects your circumstances. In these cases, it's possible to appeal a financial aid decision based on a change in your EFC. To do so, you should contact your school's financial aid department, gather documentation that shows proof of a change in finances, and submit a written appeal. The appeal should detail why the offered amount is not enough, how much you require, and a justification for your request. You may also consider meeting someone from your school's financial aid department.
Another way to appeal your FAFSA decision involves refilling the form with your updated financial information. However, this may result in missed deadlines for individual schools and colleges.
Frequently Asked Questions About the FAFSA
How Long Does the FAFSA Last?
Each round of FAFSA lasts one academic year. This means that the funding you're offered is typically meant to cover some or all of your college costs for twelve months between July 1 and June 30 of the following year.
How Often Do I Need to Fill out the FAFSA?
You need to fill out the FAFSA every year before June 30 to continue receiving student aid. This is because your financial situation can change, so the amount of aid you qualify for may fluctuate every year. Submitting the FAFSA annually will ensure you continue receiving the correct amount of assistance. After your first application, you can simply renew your FAFSA yearly without having to complete a new form every time.
Can I Submit the FAFSA Late?
No, you cannot submit the FAFSA after the June 30 deadline. If you miss this date, you will have to wait until October 1, when the FAFSA becomes available for the next academic year. As mentioned above, states and schools have their own deadlines as well that fall before June 30, so you should consider filling out the FAFSA as early as possible.
Can I Fill Out the FAFSA Without My Parents' Info?
Whether you can fill out the FAFSA without information about your parents or legal guardians is contingent on your dependency status at the time of submission. If you're considered a dependent, you must provide details about your parent or legal guardian's finances. However, if you qualify as an independent student, you can complete the FAFSA using just your information. There are 10 separate criteria that help determine which category applies to you.
How Does the FAFSA Calculate Financial Aid?
The FAFSA calculates financial aid by first figuring out how much you and your parents can pay toward the cost of attending college. Known as the EFC, this number is determined using one of three formulas, each of which applies to a unique dependency status and considers factors like family size, total income, savings, and taxes. Once your EFC is calculated, each individual school will subtract this number from the cost of attendance determined for your specific situation.
When is FAFSA Financial Aid Available?
Your school's financial aid department is responsible for disbursing aid. This is usually done twice a year, or once every semester. Funding is first applied to costs like tuition and board, and any leftover money is then transferred directly to you. This is the case for most types of aid, including grants, scholarships, and loans. However, those who receive work-study awards receive their funding in the form of a bi-monthly or monthly paycheck.