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If you or your child is applying to college, there’s one abbreviation you need to know: FAFSA — Free Application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA can unlock various financial aid options to help cover the cost of college. In this guide, learn what FAFSA is, the role FAFSA plays in receiving financial support, and what you need to know before applying.
The FAFSA assesses your eligibility for federal grants, student loans, and work-study. These funding options can make education costs more manageable and reduce the financial burden on students and families.
To qualify for an award package from your school of choice, you must submit the FAFSA application by the federal deadline of June 30, 2024. However, there are both college and state deadlines for applicants to be aware of as well.
You can complete the FAFSA application online. There’s also the option to submit the signature page via mail, though that may cause delays.
Students must fill out the FAFSA to access any federal financial aid options.
As of 2022, federal financial aid amounted to $111.6 billion among 9.8 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Fiscal Year 2022 Annual Report: Federal Student Aid.
Students are required to submit the application. Dependent students will need their parents’ signature as well as some key information to complete the FAFSA. This Student Aid page will help you determine who counts as a parent and what to do if you have divorced or widowed parents, are adopted, or have stepparents. If you are unable to provide information about your legal parents during the application process due to special circumstances, you’ll be able to indicate that on the application.
The FAFSA is reviewed by the colleges you apply to to assess your level of need and eligibility for federal financial aid. This information is used to create a Student Aid Report, which outlines the types of aid you qualify for, including federal loans, grants, and work-study programs.
Colleges typically use the data to see if you’re eligible for any scholarships or school-based aid. The aid you receive can vary by college, based on a specific formula (more on that later).
Not submitting a FAFSA application makes you ineligible for federal aid. While you could have family support or opt for private loans, FAFSA may provide aid options for free assistance like grants and fixed-rate loans with robust protections.
Students that take out federal student loans can choose to repay loans under an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), effectively reducing monthly payments. Additionally, there are opportunities for student loan forgiveness, deferment, forbearance, and death discharge.
The factors that are considered include:
Cost of attendance (COA) for the particular school — which includes total estimated costs for the year
Expected family contribution, which reviews family’s assets and size, to assess how much family assistance you may get
Need-based aid uses the following formula:
Cost of attendance – Expected family contribution = Financial need
If you qualify for need-based aid, you may be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), Direct Subsidized Loan, or Federal Work-Study.
If you receive grants, there’s some good news — you don’t have to pay them back like you do with loans. Direct Subsidized Loans must be repaid but come with one major perk — the government covers the interest while you’re in school, as well as during your grace period after graduation. Work-study provides students the opportunity to work part-time while in school. These jobs can be on- or off-campus and provide income to help pay for expenses.
Non-need based aid uses the following formula:
Cost of attendance (COA) – Financial aid awarded = Eligibility for non-need-based aid
Based on this formula, you can qualify for Direct Unsubsidized Loan, Federal PLUS Loan, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant.
Direct Unsubsidized Loans require repayment and accrue interest immediately. PLUS loans are offered to graduate students or parents. TEACH grants are unique in that they require a service obligation. If that requirement isn’t met, the grant becomes a loan the recipient must pay back.
Through the FAFSA, students can secure funding options to pay for higher education costs, provided by the federal government. To qualify, applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements:
Have US citizenship or have eligible noncitizen status
Have a valid taxpayer ID — Social Security Number
Possess a high school diploma or GED, or complete valid homeschooling or eligible career program
Accepted or currently attending a qualifying degree or certificate program
Maintain a minimum of half-time enrollment
Meet school’s standards for academic achievements
Meet eligibility requirements for need-based aid
Sign a statement confirming you’ll use funds toward education, are not currently in default, or owe money on a grant
If you meet and maintain the above requirements, you can apply for FAFSA and obtain federal financial aid.
As part of filling out the FAFSA application, you’ll be asked to provide some personal and financial information. You’ll need to provide:
Your full name
Date of birth
Social Security Number
Parents’ Social Security Number (for dependent students)
Driver’s license number
Alien registration number, if applicable
Information about total assets
Untaxed income (parents’ info required for dependent students)
Tax data (including parents or spouse, if applicable)
Whether you’re a dependent or independent student
Number of household members in college
You can fill out the FAFSA online at FAFSA.gov or submit a paper PDF via mail, but it’s recommended to complete the application online. This can mean faster processing and access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Here are the steps required to complete the FAFSA.
To simplify the process, the best thing to do is to create an FSA ID. This allows applicants to sign the FAFSA electronically, sign your Master Promissory Note (MPN) for loans, and take part in loan counseling.
You’ll be required to provide your Social Security Number and cell phone number or email address to create an account.
Use the list above to gather all the information and documents you need to fill out the FAFSA. Have your driver’s license and Social Security card handy plus information about assets. Depending on your situation, you may need information from your parents or spouse as well.
Next, fill out the FAFSA online at FAFSA.gov or through a paper application (again, online is recommended.)
You can expect the process to take a bit less than an hour to complete. By having your FSA ID ready, you can save some time as some parts are auto-filled in the application. Plus, you may qualify to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) using your FSA ID. This tool helps you easily access and retrieve your tax data for the FAFSA.
In addition, you’ll be asked to list the colleges you’d like to send your FAFSA application. Award packages vary by school. You must list a minimum of one school and up to 10 for online applications, and up to four for paper applications.
Currently, the FAFSA has over 100 questions but expect major changes in 2024-2025; the goal of these changes is to simplify the application process and cut down the number of questions by over half.
After completing the FAFSA, review everything and then get ready to submit. Before doing so, you’ll need to sign the application (in addition to a parent, if applicable). The easiest way is to use your FSA ID, which allows you to do this electronically.
By submitting online, you can ensure fast processing, which typically takes between three and five days.
You can keep tabs on FAFSA status and see where you’re at. After about five days, go to FASFA.gov and use your FSA ID to log in. If you see “Processed Successfully,” you’re good to go.
If it’s “Processing” you can check back later. You might also see “Action Required” or “Missing Signatures.” If there is further action you must take, contact the school to see about next steps.
You’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few days to a few weeks. The SAR outlines the information you provided in the FAFSA. Double-check that everything is correct. If there are any errors, make corrections ASAP.
You can do so by logging into your account on FASFA.gov with your FSA ID. From there, go to “My FAFSA” and then “Make Corrections” and correct the errors and submit again.
Your SAR will show:
Expected family contribution (how much your family can provide)
Potential eligibility and estimates for grants and federal student loans
If further verification is required
It’s important to note that the amounts in your SAR are estimates and may differ from your final award package from your school. The schools you included in the FAFSA will be able to access your SAR and determine your eligibility for federal financial aid.
Though the FAFSA asks many questions and may take some time, qualifying for federal financial aid is worth the effort. But making a mistake when applying can delay the process. Here are some top FAFSA mistakes to avoid.
Not creating an FSA ID for you and your parents. An FSA ID can help expedite the process and allow you to sign your online application. Dependent students must have a parent create a separate FSA ID as well.
Entering the wrong identification information. When you start the FAFSA, you’ll be asked if you're the student, parent, or preparer. Make sure to select the correct option to have some of your data entered into the application and avoid potential trouble.
Missing important deadlines. The FAFSA can get tricky as there are three deadlines you need to be aware of — federal, state, and college deadlines.
Not including all the schools you’re interested in. Schools play a major role in the award you’ll receive, so list all schools you’re applying to.
Skipping the DRT. The DRT helps you avoid the hassle of inputting information and can do the heavy lifting for you. If you're eligible, use the DRT to streamline the process.
As part of the FAFSA, you’re asked about your financial circumstances. The application uses prior-prior year (PPY) for income verification. In other words, for applications submitted in 2023-2024, tax returns from 2021 are used (i.e. two years before).
A lot can happen in a couple of years, and your or your family's current financial situation may be vastly different. For example, if you’ve been laid off, reduced your hours, or experienced a reduction in income, you may be eligible to have your financial aid adjusted. In that case, once your FAFSA is submitted, reach out to the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend to discuss the changes in your financial situation.
Other situations may make you eligible for a financial aid adjustment; this isn’t guaranteed, but it’s worth contacting the financial aid office. Such events include:
Parental death or divorce
Parental abuse or abandonment
Some of these situations may also allow for a dependency override. In other words, it allows financial aid administrators to change your dependency status based on what’s referred to as unusual circumstances.
You’ll need to submit an appeal letter and include any supporting documents. Discuss this option with a financial aid administrator to see about updating your award package.
The FAFSA isn’t a one-time thing; it must be renewed each school year by the appropriate deadlines. The good news is that most of your information is transferred over from the previous year. However, it’s your job to make any updates if there have been changes, such as a loss of income.
You can renew your FAFSA by logging into your account using your FSA ID. Choose the option as the student to access your application. Under “My FAFSA” you can find “Renew my FAFSA form.” From there, you can make the appropriate updates, sign, and submit.
If you miss the FAFSA or renewal deadlines, it could impact the aid you receive. It may even make you ineligible for any aid. If your school allows for a late filing and some aid, the amount may be lower than expected.
One of the most important questions is, “When is FAFSA due?” The answer isn’t as straightforward, as there are three deadlines to be aware of for FAFSA:
The FAFSA application is typically available starting October 1, and the federal deadline is June 30. FAFSA launched Oct. 1, 2022 for the 2023-2024 school year.
For the 2023-2024 school year, you must submit the application by June 30, 2024. College deadlines can vary, so check with your school(s) of choice for deadlines. You can review state deadlines — some states have deadlines listed while others require you to contact the financial aid office.
Filling out the application shortly after it’s available to ensure you qualify for financial aid is ideal. If you miss the deadline, you could jeopardize your award options.
The Department of Education announced it plans to launch a redesigned and simplified FAFSA website in December 2023. The application for academic years 2025-2026 will open on Oct. 1, 2024.
Before deciding where you want to go to school, review your financial aid packages from each school. You should receive an award letter outlining the types of aid you qualify for.
You may get forms of gift aid, which refer to grants and scholarships. As you can imagine from the name, they’re gifts and don’t require repayment. You also may qualify for federal student loans.
Receiving gift aid is preferable as it can reduce total higher education costs. So if one school is offering significantly more in scholarships and grants, that may be preferable to taking out more student loans.
Consider total costs for each school. The types of loans you receive can make a difference as well. Look at subsidized vs. unsubsidized and the interest rates. Ultimately, you want to compare options and choose the school that offers the most generous package.
If your package doesn’t cover everything, you can consider private student loans. This can provide additional funding, but do not offer opportunities for forgiveness or income-based payments.
If you’ve filled out the FAFSA and your award package doesn’t cover everything, you have a few options. Start by contacting your school's financial aid office to see if there’s additional aid available. Look into other scholarships and grants as well as work opportunities. Additionally, if all other options still aren't enough, you can look into private student loans.
Income is one of the factors to determine financial aid and must be reported in the FAFSA. If you think you or your family earn too much, it’s important to be aware there isn’t an income cap for aid. You may not receive need-based aid, but can still qualify for federal student loans.
If you need extra support to complete the FAFSA, you can reach out to the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC). You can call 1-800-433-3243, send an email, or use the Live Chat function.
The FAFSA federal deadline is June 30, 2024. However, you may have different FAFSA deadlines for both your state and college. Be sure to review all three deadlines to make sure you submit your application on time.
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