Your Free Guide to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Your Free Guide to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

You will learn about:
  • The different ways to complete the FAFSA.
  • Types of financial aid, like grants, loans and more.
  • How to receive your financial aid.

53 min – Estimated reading time

Your Free Guide to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Your Free Guide to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

What is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)?

For college-bound students and their families, the annual cost of tuition may at first seem intimidating and cost-prohibitive. Among tuition, dormitory housing costs, school supplies, meal plans and other associated fees, college and university expenses can easily add up to thousands, even for just one school year.

According to a recent study, the average annual cost to attend college varies depending on the type of school attended.

Below are the costs for the 2020-2021 school year:

  • Private school: $35,087
  • Public school, out-of-state: $21,184
  • Public school, in-state: $9,687

That’s where financial aid comes into play. In addition to private and public loans that can be borrowed to pay off tuition over time, other types of financial aid — from federal, state, college and not-for-profit grants, work study reimbursement, and even scholarships — can help students save money over the course of their academic career.

Unfortunately, many students aren’t aware about financial aid available to them; they don’t know how to pursue it, or they assume that they don’t qualify before they even apply. Though federal data shows that nearly all students qualify for some sort of financial aid, and 85 percent receive some sort of financial aid, 44 percent believed they were ineligible for financial aid, and 20 percent failed to fill out the necessary paperwork.

That paperwork is called the FAFSA — an acronym that stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As its name implies, it doesn’t cost anything to fill out the form, but it’s required for prospective college-bound students who wish to receive financial aid.

Basic Student Aid Eligibility

The U.S. Department of Education mandates that students must meet certain requirements to qualify for federal monetary aid:

  • Demonstrate financial need — the difference between the cost of attending their prospective school and their family’s expected financial contribution toward tuition;
  • Be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national/eligible noncitizen;
  • Have an active Social Security Number;
  • Register with Selective Service, for males between the ages of 18 and 25;
  • Be enrolled or accepted into a qualifying degree or certificate program;
  • Be signed up at least half-time for Direct Loan Program funding eligibility (see the “Student Loans” section for more on lending options);
  • Maintain good academic standing and progress in school;
  • Attest (on the FAFSA form) that the applicant:
    • Is not currently in default or behind on any student loans;
    • Does not owe money on federal student assistance; 
    • Will use aid money only for qualifying educational purposes.
  • Demonstrate qualifications to earn a college education through any one of these examples:
    • Having a high school diploma or GED
    • Completing a high school education in home school
    • Signing up for an eligible career pathway program

The Department of Education states that certain additional eligibility requirements may also apply for students who are not U.S. citizens, those with any criminal convictions, and those who may have intellectual disabilities.

FAFSA Contact Information

There are a few ways to get in touch with the U.S. Department of Education to get more information about FAFSA: online, by email, or by phone. 

On the web

The official Federal Student Aid Information Center web portal is one of the most comprehensive resources for applying for college financial aid — containing information on the FAFSA process, downloading a FAFSA form, creating an FSA username and password plus other topic areas. There’s also a live chat function.

Phone: 1-800-433-3243

Financial Aid 101

There are a variety of financial aid options that tailor to the needs of various individuals. 

  • Student loans: Funds can be borrowed at affordable rates; 
  • Student grants: Aid can be granted without need for repayment; 
  • Scholarships: Aid can be awarded due to excellent academic or other performance; or 
  • Work study programs: Aid can be exchanged through work experience.

Student Loans

Student loans are the most common type of financial aid to help pay for college expenses. According to 2020 data from Forbes, there were 45 million student loan borrowers in the U.S., and the average student loan debt balance was $29,200.

Public loans are offered under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, which offers various lending options for college-bound students and their parents.

Since each person’s educational journey is different, so might be the amount of money they borrow in student loans — some may be cheaper, some more expensive, depending on one’s financial situation, the tuition of the school they’re attending, the type of academic program they’re enrolled in, and the type of loan they take out.

How much can I borrow with a student loan?

To avoid unnecessary borrowing and the risk of debt, there are limits to the amount of student loans one can borrow. For the 2020-2021 school year, undergraduates are allowed to borrow up to $12,500 annually, or $57,500 for their entire four years, in federal loans.

Graduate students are allowed to borrow a bit more in Direct Subsidized Loans (more information on those below), since tuition is more expensive than the cost for undergraduate programs. Federal loan limits of $20,500 yearly and $138,500 total apply.

For private loans, borrowing limits depend on the lender, but generally speaking, borrowers should be able to obtain loans comparable with federal loans that cover the majority of their educational costs.

When do I need to begin paying my loans?

Students and recent graduates also have options when it comes to loan repayment deadlines. Generally, there’s a six-month grace period following graduation (or, following a student’s decision to leave school or drop to half-time enrollment) to begin repaying student loans. This gives graduates time to find a job without the burden of immediately paying loans without an income.

The Department of Education also offers some other options to delay repayment of student loans.

Student loan deferment is a delay of loan payments for up to three years. For certain types of federal loans (Direct Subsidized or Direct Stafford Loans, which can be found below in the Types of Student Loans section), interest will continue to accrue with a deferment, but it may be paid by the government.

Forbearance is a similar delay process, only up to one year. Though no money is owed during this period, interest will continue to compound and will need to be paid off once forbearance ends.

Types of Student Loans

Public, federal loans funded by the U.S. government are the most common types of student loans to pay for college, with the greatest variety of options for borrowers to choose from. Each one differs slightly in their financial structure, lending and repayment rules and regulations. 

Federal student loans are sometimes called Stafford loans, which they were previously known as under a former program with the Federal Family Education Loan Program. For the last decade, these direct loans have been offered by the U.S. Department of Education.

Two different types of terms are used with federal loans: subsidized vs. unsubsidized

  • Whenever a loan is subsidized, the government pays for accrued interest on the loan’s balance while A) a student is still attending school, or B) when their loan, as stated above, is in deferment.
  • An unsubsidized loan means a student is responsible for interest that adds up on the loan.

There are four main types of federal student loans:

  1. Direct Subsidized Loans

Undergraduate students can take advantage of direct subsidized loans if they demonstrate financial need. If approved, the loan holder isn’t responsible for paying interest while still enrolled in school. 

For information on amounts available see: studentaid.gov

  1. Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Direct unsubsidized loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students. Financial need isn’t an eligibility requirement to be approved for this type of loan.

For information on amounts available see: studentaid.gov

  1. Direct PLUS Loans

Direct PLUS loans are only available to graduate students or parents of students. Though financial need is not a requirement, a credit check is needed to determine eligibility for a PLUS loan. 

Maximum amount: Cost of college attendance minus the amount of other financial aid.

  1. Direct Consolidation Loans

For students with more than one student loan, direct consolidation loans enable loan holders to combine their debt into one single loan with one interest rate. 

There are no loan limits, since consolidation loans are designed to combine existing loans together, not borrow new funds.

Grants

Whereas a student loan is money borrowed that must be repaid, a grant is free money that is given to a student and doesn’t need to be paid back.

Where do grants come from?

Grants can originate from a number of places, like:

  • Federal or state governments.
  • Colleges, universities or career schools.
  • Nonprofits.
  • Private organizations or entities.

Do I qualify for a federal grant?

Student loan eligibility is based primarily on a student’s financial need. It depends on the amount a student need to borrow versus the student’s financial standing (if they are independent) or their parents’ financial standing. But with grants, eligibility requirements vary by program. Review the eligibility criteria for different federal grants in their respective sections below.

Types of Federal Grants

Federal Pell Grants

Federal Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduate college students who can demonstrate and prove financial need. Financial need is noted as the gap, or the difference, between what a college tuition costs and what a student or student’s family can afford. This is often abbreviated as EFC, or Expected Family Contribution — an index number that colleges and universities use to determine the amount of financial aid students are eligible to receive.

While eligibility is ultimately determined after filling out the FAFSA form, families whose income level does not exceed $50,000 may meet most eligibility requirements for grant funding; however, the majority of financial need-based aid is awarded to students with a total family income level of $20,000 per year or lower.

The maximum annual amount for a Federal Pell Grant for the 2020-2021 award year is $6,345. 

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants

Often abbreviated as FSEOGs, these grants are awarded to undergraduate students with financial need. However, in this case, they’re granted by a college or university’s financial aid office or department. 

Eligibility, determined after completing the FAFSA, depends on a student’s financial need and their family’s EFC index number. The maximum FSEOG amount for eligible students is $4,000 per school year.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants 

This is a special grant available to students if:

  • A parent or guardian served in the U.S. Armed Forces and died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks, and if the grant applicant was younger than 24 years old at that time. This is the primary eligibility requirement.
  • They are ineligible for a Federal Pell grant based on their Expected Family Contribution, but meet the remaining Pell grant requirements.

The grant award maximum is $6,345 — the same as a Federal Pell Grant — but cannot, according to the Department of Education, exceed the amount of one’s college tuition. However, under the Budget Control Act of 2011, all Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants distributed on or after Oct. 1, 2020 but before Oct. 1, 2021 will be reduced by 5.7% of the maximum award amount, for a grant total of $5,983.34.

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants 

TEACH Grants obligate applicants to attend and complete four years of college to become a teacher as a condition for receiving the grant. Further eligibility requirements include the following:

First, students must be enrolled in an undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, or graduate student program, or a TEACH Grant-eligible program, which involve several different subject areas of study, including:

  • Mathematics.
  • Special education.
  • Foreign language education.
  • Bilingual or English-language acquisition education.
  • Reading.
  • Sciences.
  • Other high-need subjects considered in demand by the federal or state government, or local education agency.

Generally, they must meet certain academic standards, such as scoring above the 75th percentile in various areas of a college admissions test. A minimum cumulative GPA of at least 3.25 is also required to qualify.

Students enrolled full time can receive up to $4,000 in TEACH grants per school year:

  • $16,000 maximum for undergraduate students (four years)
  • $8,000 maximum for graduate students (two years)

How much can I receive in education grants?

The amount a student can receive in education grant money varies according to the type of grant, the school or organization granting the money, and an applicant’s academic path and financial need. Note that the maximum amounts listed above are not given to every student. 

Work-Study Programs

Work-study offers part-time jobs for students with financial need. Work-study is either federally or state funded through a student’s college, university or career school.

What kind of jobs are available through work study?

Work-study opportunities are available on- and off-campus for undergraduate and graduate students, giving them the opportunity to gain work experience in their major or chosen field of study. 

There are various work-study positions to choose from, such as:

  • Tutoring elementary or high school students
  • Computer, IT or lab assistant positions on campus
  • Science lab assistance
  • Office assistant or clerical/professional roles
  • Communications positions like marketing support or interviewing, writing and editing for newspapers or publications
  • Data entry
  • Working at the campus library
  • Working at a local gym or at the campus fitness center
  • Daycare or childcare

Work-study positions can sometimes have crossover with paid internships. Both options can help a student gain professional, career experience and advance their chances at obtaining competitive employment after graduation. 

Internships, when paid, can also go toward paying tuition costs. However, an internship doesn’t require filling out a FAFSA application or meeting eligibility requirements — as internships are traditionally positions that are designed for people to gain experience in an industry, not necessarily for them to pay for college.

How much can I earn?

Students under work-study can expect to earn at least the minimum wage. Pay or wages may also vary depending on the position, or the individual rules of one’s college or university.

Is there a limit to the number of hours I can work?

There are limits to the amount of time students can work on a work-study program. No overtime is permitted. Generally, one’s employer and their school’s financial aid office will determine how many hours a student is allowed to work depending on:

  • The amount of their financial aid award
  • Their class schedule
  • The type and nature of employment
  • The needs of their employer

Scholarships

Another form of financial aid comes in the form of scholarships. Scholarships, like grants, are financial gifts to students to help with college tuition costs, and do not need to be repaid. 

Most scholarships are merit-based, awarded to students who have demonstrated academic or extracurricular achievements, such as getting on a dean’s list for excellent grades, or excelling in athletics, or doing volunteer work or community service.

Where do scholarships come from?

Scholarships can originate from a variety of sources:

  • Government agencies or departments
  • Colleges and universities 
  • Nonprofits
  • Educational or community foundations
  • Private businesses 
  • Individual donors

Types of Scholarships Available

There are various types of scholarships available to students who are interested in free financial aid. These scholarships can be awarded for various reasons. See the sections below for more information.

Academic and Merit-Based Scholarships 

High-achieving students with excellent grades, stellar academic performance, or high marks on their SATs or ACTs may qualify to receive scholarship money to have their tuition costs partially covered. Full scholarships are also available to support the entire cost to attend school.

Athletic Scholarships

Students who played football, baseball or another sport in high school may qualify for an athletic scholarship if they decide to continue playing the sport on their college team.

Individual, Specific or Hobby Scholarships 

These types of specified scholarships are usually interest- or skill-based, meant to award students for an outstanding talent they possess. There are scholarships for writing, music, dance, the arts, religious affiliation, or scholarships for individual subjects.

Community Service Scholarships

Students who devote a great deal of time volunteering in their community can qualify for scholarships that reward their outreach efforts. High school students with a strong interest in giving back to their communities, whether it’s volunteering at any number of nonprofits or social organizations, should consider applying for this type of scholarship to help aid their college costs.

Military Scholarships 

Very similar to military service grants, students who spend time working with their school’s ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), or who may be considering a career in a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces can qualify for one of the many military scholarship opportunities offered by a host of different organizations. There are also scholarships available for children of veterans or active members of the military.

Employee and Workplace Scholarships

Certain companies and retailers also offer their own college scholarships to family members of employees, and employees themselves pursuing educational opportunities outside the workplace. 

Financial Need Scholarships

Still other scholarships only require that students and their families demonstrate financial need in order to qualify.

How to Find Scholarships

One of the best parts about scholarships is that they can be found in so many different places, and are often fairly easy to find. These are just some of the places to search for and find information on scholarship funding:

  • Searching online for keywords related to specific scholarships, like “writing scholarships,” “merit-based scholarships,” or searching for scholarships at potential schools one might attend
  • High school guidance counselors or school college resources
  • Financial aid offices at community colleges, four-year colleges or universities, or career schools
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search site, https://www.careeronestop.org/toolkit/training/find-scholarships.aspx
  • Consulting a local public library’s education or reference sections
  • Local, state, or federal agencies, especially departments of education
  • Nonprofit, community, ethnic or religious organizations, foundations and stewardships
  • Private businesses
  • A student’s or their parents’ place of employment

How much can I receive in scholarship money?

Statistics show that most students can earn between $5,000 and $10,000 in scholarship money, depending on the cost of their college tuition and the variety of scholarship aid they pursue.

In many cases, students can receive enough in scholarship money to support their entire undergraduate or postgraduate education.

A full scholarship, also called a full-ride scholarship, is the most coveted type of scholarship since it can pay for a student’s entire cost to attend a college or university — the better or more prestigious an educational institution, the more expensive tuition may be.

Full-ride scholarships are very competitive and generally offered to the most academically gifted students and those who show an exceptional talent in athletics, music, a certain area of study, or other way of standing out among their peers. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for the valedictorian of a high school graduating class to qualify for a full or almost full scholarship based on their exemplary academic accomplishments.

Even if a student doesn’t qualify for a full scholarship, there’s virtually no limit to the amount of scholarship money someone can receive — but more importantly, there’s virtually no limit in the amount of scholarships one can receive. 

Researching, seeking out and applying for several scholarships can result in being granted a few awards, or even several, that can add up and cover a significant portion of a college tuition.

Does filling out the FAFSA application qualify you for scholarships?

Filling out the FAFSA application alone isn’t enough to qualify students for scholarships; that depends on the factors outlined above, like academic performance, personal and scholarly achievements, and other qualifying factors.

What filling out the FAFSA form can do is help applicants determine how much financial aid they should seek, what their financial need is, and how much they can earn in aid.

How Financial Aid Is Calculated

Financial aid can vary from student to student, and FAFSA applicant to FAFSA applicant. After completing and filing out the FAFSA form, several factors are then taken into consideration to determine and calculate how much financial aid an applicant can receive, like:

  • Their degree of financial need;
  • Their Cost of Attendance, abbreviated as COA; and
  • Their Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.

Need-Based vs. Non-Need-Based Aid

Need-based and non-need-based aid are both forms of financial help, but they differ in the manner which by FAFSA applicants qualify. 

Need-based financial aid includes loans, grants, scholarships and other forms of monetary help for students who fall below a certain financial limit; thus, their families may struggle to afford the entire expense of college without help.

Non-need-based aid also comes in the form of loans, grants and scholarships but indicates that a student isn’t in need of financial help. Their financial situation or family’s income level may be considered too great to qualify for need-based aid, implying that they can more easily afford to pay tuition costs.

Finding Cost of Attendance (COA)

COA stands for Cost of Attendance, and it simply signifies how much it will cost to attend a college or university. Private universities tend to cost more than public colleges and universities, and the type of program a student is enrolled in can make a difference in the cost, too.

Generally, colleges will provide applicants with an estimate of their total COA for a prospective school year (or length of academic program, whether it’s one semester or multiple). A COA is usually broken down into several factors to determine what potential costs to attend will be, like:

  • Total tuition and associated fees
  • Housing and dorm costs
  • Books and school supplies
  • On- or off-campus meal plans
  • Transportation costs
  • Other associated fees, such as those for student loans
  • Personal expenses, such as those for childcare or disability accommodations
  • Study-abroad expenses

Determining Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

Another acronym, EFC, stands for Expected Family Contribution, but it doesn’t quite mean what it appears to imply. 

EFC isn’t the amount of money a student or their family is expected to pay for college. Rather, it’s really an indicator of a family’s financial solvency in regards to their ability to pay for college. It’s an index number that college and university financial aid support staff utilize when calculating the amount of financial aid a student is qualified to receive.

How is this index number calculated? There’s a formula that takes several factors into account, which may include:

  • Size of family
  • Age of oldest parent
  • Number of children attending college or university
  • Parents’ total untaxed earned income
  • Other assets of value
  • Current earned benefits, such as Social Security funds, unemployment income, IRAs or 401(k)s
  • Student income and assets

Ultimately, after the FAFSA is completed, applicants will receive their EFC number. But to start calculating the EFC in advance, you may use the College Board’s EFC calculator here: https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/paying-your-share/expected-family-contribution-calculator.

Preparing to Complete the FAFSA Form

With all of this information in mind, it’s time to begin the FAFSA process by learning when to file, how to file, what information to include, and the steps to take before, during and after the filing process.

When to Complete the FAFSA

You should fill out the form as early as possible in advance of the academic school year beginning. Since the FAFSA is a federal application, some deadlines are set by the Department of Education.

Important FAFSA Deadlines

For the 2020-2021 academic year: Completed FAFSA forms including all supporting paperwork and documentation must be submitted by June 30, 2021, no later than 11:59 p.m. Central time. 

Corrections or revisions have a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Central time on September 11, 2021.

For the 2021-2022 academic year: Completed FAFSA forms including all supporting paperwork and documentation must be submitted by June 30, 2022, no later than 11:59 p.m. Central time. 

Corrections or revisions have a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Central time on September 10, 2022.

Individual states and colleges and universities may also have their own financial aid deadlines. Visit the StudentAid.gov website at https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/fafsa-deadlines for a list.

Choose Your Filing Option

College-bound students have three primary ways to fill out the FAFSA:

Federal Student Aid Programs
P.O. Box 7650
London, KY 40742-7650

Creating a Federal Student Aid ID

An FSA ID, or Federal Student Aid ID, is a username and password to apply for financial aid online.

It is not mandatory for students or their parents to have an FSA ID if they prefer filling out, signing and mailing in a physical copy of the FAFSA, but the Department of Education recommends creating a login, since having an account gives FAFSA applicants various capabilities, including:

  • You have one portal for accessing and completing the FAFSA
  • For student loans:
    • Signing Master Promissory Notes, or MPNs
    • Utilizing loan counseling services
    • Setting up loan repayment plans
    • Taking advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness tool
  • The FAFSA application process is quicker and faster 
  • You have the ability to correct or change information
  • You have the convenience of prefilling a FAFSA form with information from prior applications without having to re-enter the information from scratch

To create an FSA ID, visit StudentAid.gov’s FSA landing page at https://studentaid.gov/fsa-id/create-account/launch to set up an account. A Social Security Number and phone number and/or a valid email address are required.

Completing the FAFSA Form

After creating an account on StudentAid.gov with an FSA ID and password, make sure to have the necessary information and documentation in the following checklists before proceeding to fill out the FAFSA.

Information Needed During the FAFSA Process

  • Social Security Number
  • Driver’s license number (along with the state where the license was issued)
    • Note that students or applicants who don’t have a driver’s license don’t need to present a government-issued form of ID to complete the FAFSA.

Documents Needed to Complete the FAFSA

  • Student’s federal income tax returns from the most recent filing season, including W-2s and other records of income within the last year (if the student earned income)
  • Parents’ federal income tax returns, including W-2s, 1040s, or other associated income records within the last year
    • These forms are required only if the student applying for aid is a dependent.
  • Other miscellaneous documents of taxable income
  • Bank statements, including records of family investments, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or other earnings, if applicable
  • Documentation for non-taxable income, which may include any of the following:
    • Welfare benefits
    • Childcare support
    • Social Security income
    • Veterans benefits
    • Workers’ compensation benefits
    • Military or clergy allowances
    • Black Lung Benefits

Determining Dependency Status

As noted above, only if a student is a dependent must they submit documents of their parents’ or guardians’ income tax returns or income records. 

How can an applicant determine if they’re dependent or independent? One section of the FAFSA contains 10 questions about one’s age, marital status, the college degree being pursued, and if the applicant has dependents of their own, among other questions. The answers will determine if the applicant is required to submit parental/guardian financial information in order to receive financial aid.

Listing Schools and Colleges on the FAFSA Form

The FAFSA allows applicants to list colleges and universities they’re interested in attending on the FAFSA. There are limits to how many schools can be listed depending on the method of application:

  • When filing online or with the myStudentAid mobile app, up to 10 schools can be listed.
  • A limit of four schools can be listed when filing using a physical FAFSA form.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, most states do not require schools to be listed on the FAFSA application in a particular order when it comes to applying for federal financial aid. It will not affect eligibility. However, when applying for certain forms of state-funded financial aid, some states may mandate that applicants list their prospective colleges or universities in a specific order. Other states also have other specific requirements.

The states and territories that do not require schools to be listed in a particular order for state financial aid eligibility are as follows:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • South Dakota
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

Other states, while not requiring FAFSA applicants to list their schools in a specific order, do require students to list an eligible in-state college in order to be considered for financial aid. These states are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Still, other states have their own specific requirements when listing schools on the FAFSA form. See below for states with additional specific requirements:

  • Connecticut: In-state colleges must be listed in the first two positions of the FAFSA school list in order to be considered for eligibility.
  • Massachusetts: Grant awards are made for the first eligible in-state college listed on the FAFSA form.
  • Michigan: Grant awards are made for the first eligible in-state college listed on the FAFSA form.
  • Pennsylvania: Grant awards are made for the first eligible in-state college listed on the FAFSA form.
  • South Carolina: An eligible in-state college must be listed in order to be eligible for financial aid, and colleges the student is most likely to attend should appear at the top of the list.
  • Vermont: Applicants will only be considered for financial aid if their first-choice colleges (from any state) are listed in the top three positions.
  • West Virginia: Grant awards are made for the first eligible in-state college listed on the FAFSA form.

The information above was gathered from this official government source: https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/filling-out/school-list.

Providing Income Data on the FAFSA

The primary reason that income information is required, as is stated throughout this guide, is to demonstrate a student’s or their family’s degree of financial need, and ultimately, how much financial aid they qualify for. 

Other benefits to providing the necessary information are that it will:

  • Allow applicants to submit their FAFSA form early (as early as the October of the year prior to starting school), and 
  • Minimize the need to return to the application to make updates and/or correct errors.

While listing out taxable income might appear daunting, when filing the FAFSA online, you can access the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which automatically and electronically collates and transfers federal tax return information into one’s respective FAFSA form, eliminating the need to enter the information manually.

You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool by following these steps:

  1. Using the FSA ID, log in to the FAFSA homepage at https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa.
  2. Click the “Link to IRS” button when arriving at the finance portion of the form (if eligible to use it) to be transferred to the IRS website.
  3. There, enter all information precisely as it’s shown on your tax return form and click “Submit.”
  4. Lastly, click the button that says “Transfer My Tax Information into the FAFSA form,” and then “Submit.”
  5. The words “Transferred From the IRS” indicate the information was successfully entered.

Submitting the FAFSA Form

Remember that the deadline to submit the FAFSA for the 2022-2023 academic year is June 30, 2023 to be considered for financial aid.

FAFSA forms should be submitted as early as possible in advance of the academic year. Applications can begin to be submitted for the 2022-2023 school year on October 1, 2021. 

Upon completion of the application, return to the top and double check that all fields are filled out correctly and completely, free of typographical errors or other mistakes. 

Completed FAFSAs will include Expected Family Contribution information, though should an incomplete FAFSA be filed, an EFC will not be displayed on the e-version, and applicants will receive a notification about which areas of the application need to be updated.

After Completion of the FAFSA

After the FAFSA has been filled out and filed, there are various steps you can take. Learn more in the following sections.

How to Check the Status of a FAFSA Form

Students and families have a couple of options for checking the status of their FAFSA:

  1. Using StudentAid.gov:
    • Visit StudentAid.gov
    • Log into the FAFSA account using the FSA ID and password
    • Click the “My FAFSA” section
  2. Using the school’s financial aid office:
    • If the student is already attending college or university, check with the school’s financial aid office regarding the application status.

What is the Student Aid Report (SAR)?

After completing and submitting the FAFSA, applicants will receive an email — within 3 to 5 days, according to the Department of Education — with a Student Aid Report (SAR). If no email address exists on file, expect a paper copy mailed and delivered to you via postal mail within 7 to 10 days.

Completed SARs will include the applicant’s EFC (Learn more about EFC in the section “Determining Expected Family Contribution (EFC).” Colleges listed on the FAFSA form will have electronic access to this information, which they will use to develop a financial aid estimate for applicants.

Changing Information on the FAFSA

The FAFSA is an extensive application, and sometimes, errors may be made or information may change. The ability to file the form online means that corrections or updates can easily be made by logging back in and making the necessary changes.

How to Update Information on the FAFSA

  1. Log back into the FAFSA site (www.StudentAid.gov) using the FSA ID and password
  2. Go to the “My FAFSA” page
  3. Click on “Make FAFSA Corrections”
  4. Create a “save key,” which is an alphanumeric code between four and eight characters long that allows one to return to the FAFSA application to make corrections at any point, or to save information
  5. Change or update the applicable information and click “Save”

If, instead, a hard copy FAFSA was mailed and completed, take the opportunity to make changes or updates on the Student Aid Report (SAR) that should have arrived in the mail 7 to 10 days after filing the FAFSA. Otherwise, if the student is already attending a college or university, consult with the school financial aid office if any information needs updating.

According to the Department of Education, there are certain things that must be updated on the FAFSA in order to be considered for financial aid:

  • Changes to dependency status
  • Changes to the number of people in a student’s or their family’s household
  • Changes to the number of people in said households who are in college

The “Make FAFSA Corrections” section of the StudentAid.gov website also permits applicants to add or delete the schools they wish to list on the form.

My Student Aid Report contains mistakes. Can I fix them?

Yes, mistakes on the SAR can be fixed by correcting the form and mailing it back, or by logging in to your account, creating a save key and updating information as needed.

Common errors include:

  • Not signing the FAFSA.
  • Accidentally leaving fields blank or filled in incorrectly.
  • Skipping over instructions/questions, or answering incorrectly to the question asked.
  • Reporting incorrect financial or tax information.

However, some errors need to be approached differently. For instance, if the FAFSA was filed with a Social Security Number incorrectly entered, applicants are allowed to submit a new FAFSA online with the corrected info. Their school’s financial aid office may also be able to make the change. 

There may be other reasons for making changes or updates to a FAFSA. Visit the FAFSA website here to learn more about when you can or cannot make changes to the SAR: https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/review-and-correct/correct

If the FAFSA was mailed, the information will need to be filled out on the student’s SAR and mailed again, to the address listed on the SAR. However, this method could take a few weeks to process.

Accepting and Receiving Financial Aid

Once the FAFSA process has ended and a student has been granted financial aid, whether it’s a grant, scholarship, work-study offer or other form of help, the next step is knowing how to accept the offer(s) and begin receiving aid while attending college or university.

How to Decide Which Types of Aid to Accept

According to the Department of Education, students are recommended to accept financial aid in this order:

  1. Grants and Scholarships: Accept free money first.
  2. Work-study: Earned money second
  3. Subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans, local/college-sourced loans, private loans: Borrowed money third.

Prioritizing aid that doesn’t need repayment minimizes the need to rely on student loans and borrow more money than one ultimately needs.

How to Accept a Financial Aid Package

There are a few ways to accept financial aid, which vary depending on whether it’s offered federally or by a college or university. The FAFSA is online, so to accept a federal financial aid package, you typically need to complete online documentation.

In most cases, upon receiving a financial aid offer from a school, log into the college’s website with a set student ID and password, and follow the instructions to complete, sign and submit the form. 

Other times, a financial aid award letter is mailed to the student’s or their family’s home address. On accepting the offer, sign and mail back the form. Or, follow the instructions on the financial aid award letter.

About Master Promissory Notes (MPNs)

Whether it’s a student loan or any instance that someone borrows money from a lender, a Master Promissory Note, or MPN, is a legally binding document that obligates the borrower to repay their loan with interest.

Who needs to complete an MPN?

In legal terms, promissory means a promise, meaning that the person who signs an MPN promises to repay money they have borrowed. For federal loans repaid to the U.S. Department of Education, students or their parents who have filled out the FAFSA, been approved for financial aid, and taken out student loans are required to complete, sign and submit an MPN.

How to Complete an MPN

Direct loan MPNs are available to download and complete on StudentAid.gov, https://studentaid.gov/mpn/. These include:

  • MPNs for Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loans
  • MPNs for PLUS Subsidized/Unsubsidized Loans for Graduate/Professional Students
  • MPNs for PLUS Loans for Parents of Dependent Undergraduate Students

When will I receive my financial aid?

Generally, students can expect to receive their first disbursement of financial aid within the first few weeks after the start of their semester. Disbursements usually cover at least two payments’ of the student’s tuition.

How will I receive my financial aid?

Financial aid disbursements depend on the type of financial aid that has been awarded:

  • Grants and student loans are usually applied by a school toward tuition (and other associated costs, like dorm lodging). Remaining funds are paid directly to the recipient intended to cover other education-related expenses, like school supplies.
  • Work-study funds are paid just as in a position of employment — either through direct deposit or to a student account. Here, the student is entrusted to use their earnings to pay tuition and related expenses themselves.
  • For Parent PLUS loans, financial aid should be credited to the child’s student with their school.

About Entrance Counseling

Entrance counseling is technically loan entrance counseling. Undergraduate students who are receiving a Direct Loan or Federal Family Education Loan for the first time as well as graduate and professional students receiving Direct PLUS loans are required to take entrance counseling. The session ensures they understand the rules, regulations and responsibilities of taking out a loan and repaying it.

Most counseling consists of a single session that takes 20 to 30 minutes. The type of counseling a student may take depends on his or her school. Students should check with their school’s financial aid website to determine the type of counseling that satisfies the requirement.

If the school accepts online entrance counseling provided by the Department of Education, students can log in and find a session on the FAFSA website here: https://studentaid.gov/entrance-counseling/

Renewing the FAFSA

The FAFSA must be submitted multiple times throughout one’s college career. Learn more about the frequency of renewing the FAFSA and how to renew below.

How often do I need to submit a FAFSA?

Students and their families (if the student is a dependent) need to complete a FAFSA application each academic year that they are seeking financial aid. Since financial situations change, information on a FAFSA form can change year by year and needs to be reflected.

How do I renew my FAFSA?

On the FAFSA website, applicants can download a renewal FAFSA form that automatically recalls and pre-fills fields with information and data from the prior year’s FAFSA that remain unchanged. To begin, students can log into their FAFSA account here: https://studentaid.gov/fafsa-app/ROLES

A new FAFSA usually does not need to be created from scratch, field by field. 

Losing and Regaining Student Aid Eligibility

Similar to other assistance offered by the government and other entities, student aid can be lost if one no longer meets the established requirements. Learn more about ways aid can be lost and steps one can take to regain eligibility below.

Reasons You Can Lose Student Aid

There are several reasons why students can have their financial aid suspended or relinquished. These include:

  • Unsatisfactory academic performance: If a certain Grade Point Average is not maintained (usually a minimum of 2.0), financial aid could be lost.
  • Not having enough academic credits: Many schools require students to be enrolled in a minimum amount of credits and classes to continue qualifying for and receiving financial aid.
  • Student/family makes too much money: If a student’s or their family’s income passes a certain threshold, they may no longer meet the minimum requirements for financial need, disqualifying them for financial aid.
  • Drug-related activity: If a student is accused and convicted of having or selling illegal drugs, their financial aid could be revoked even if they are not expelled from school.

How to Regain Eligibility and Student Aid

If aid has been lost, regaining and retaining eligibility is usually possible and achievable by the following measures:

  • Improved grades: Studying harder, devoting time to schoolwork and homework, attending class, taking advantage of tutoring, and communicating with professors are just some steps to raising one’s grades and their GPA, which can help to re-qualify for financial aid.
  • Initiating a dialogue with the financial aid office: It may not be necessary to appeal a revocation of financial aid. Talking to representatives at the financial aid office can help to see what measures can be taken to regain eligibility, such as improved academic performance.

Students can check to see if they are maintaining basic eligibility requirements for federal student aid by visiting the FAFSA website here: https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility/requirements

The Effects of COVID-19 on Student Aid

In response to COVID-19, the federal government is providing student aid and loan relief. The U.S. Department of Education, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), offers students several options:

Likewise, extended application deadlines as well as other financial aid resources for students applying or entering school have been put in place. Review more college financial aid information related to COVID-19 at https://studentaid.gov/announcements-events/coronavirus.

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