Financial aid makes college more affordable, but you need to follow some steps to unlock it. Knowing what to expect can make the process easier. The place to start is with the FAFSA.
What Is the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is what determines your eligibility for federal financial aid. In order to receive any federal financial aid, you must complete the FAFSA.
The FAFSA is free to use and is most easily completed online or with the myStudentAid mobile app. Your completed FAFSA will be sent to the colleges that you list on your FAFSA, and they’ll use that information to put together your financial aid offer.
Who Should Use the FAFSA?
You should plan on completing the FAFSA, even if you don’t anticipate being eligible for federal aid or don’t plan on borrowing federal student loans, to understand your aid options.
Undocumented students, including DACA students, are not eligible to complete the FAFSA, and should instead contact a school’s financial aid office to inquire about other aid options.
Did You Know? About 20 million students use the FAFSA each year.
When Should I File the FAFSA?
The FAFSA for each school year becomes available on October 1 of the preceding year. For example, the application for the 2021-22 school year became available on October 1, 2020. To avoid missing school and state deadlines (which vary), be sure to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible once it’s available.
The FAFSA is good for just one year, so make sure to complete a FAFSA for every year you plan on being in school.
For step-by-step guidance on filling out the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education has a helpful guide.
How Does the FAFSA Determine Aid Eligibility?
The FAFSA asks questions about your family situation and finances to determine your eligibility for federal aid. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to answer some more complex financial questions. The FAFSA also asks about your parents’ finances, unless you meet the criteria for being an “independent student” — for example, if you are at least 24 years old, or married. If you’re an independent student, you will answer questions only about your own (or you and your spouse’s) finances.
The FAFSA has a number of features that make it easier to complete, including the “data retrieval tool” (DRT) that lets you import your IRS tax data from a prior year into the FAFSA to automatically answer a lot of the financial questions. Using the DRT will not only save you time, but also reduce the chances of errors. Most users are eligible to use the DRT.
Your answers to the questions on the FAFSA will be used to calculate an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the federal government’s estimate of what you and your family may be able to contribute toward your college costs. The EFC is calculated using a formula established in federal law, and it is used to determine what federal aid you are eligible for.
Your family’s actual ability to contribute to your college costs may be different than the EFC. Some families use their savings to cover the EFC — for example, by making use of a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan that was set up in advance.
How Do I Apply for State Financial Aid?
The FAFSA also unlocks most state financial aid. Many states use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own financial aid programs. Many states also give out aid on a first-come, first-served basis, with those applying before a certain deadline given priority, so it’s important to file the FAFSA as soon as you’re able. Click here to determine your state’s aid application deadlines, and click here to find more information about what aid is available in your state.
What Happens After I Submit the FAFSA?
After you submit your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that shows you a summary of the information you entered on your FAFSA and your basic aid eligibility, including your EFC. Keep in mind that the eligibility shown on your SAR is not the aid you will actually receive, which will be determined by the school and communicated in your financial aid offer.
Your SAR will indicate if there are any issues that need to be addressed to complete your FAFSA. Review your SAR carefully to make sure it’s correct and complete. If you need to, you can make corrections or updates.
You may also receive a notice from your school that you’ve been selected for verification, which just means you may need to submit some additional documentation in order to receive aid you’re eligible for. Additional documentation might include IRS tax transcripts or a signed copy of your income tax return. If you’re selected for verification, submitting what’s required as quickly as possible will help to avoid delays in receiving your aid. If you need help understanding what’s required, and by when, contact your school’s financial aid office.
Other Financial Aid Applications
Some colleges use an additional aid application called the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to determine eligibility for nonfederal aid — this is not a substitute for the FAFSA, which is always required for federal aid. The CSS Profile, which is run by the College Board, costs $25 for the first school and $16 for every additional school added. Some students, including those from lower-income families, may qualify for a fee waiver. Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile becomes available on October 1, however, deadlines to complete the CSS Profile vary by school. Click here to learn more and to access the CSS profile.
Some colleges might also have their own applications for aid programs that they run themselves — be sure to check with your financial aid office to learn about all your aid options, and what may be required to apply for different types of aid.
The process of applying for private scholarships, including requirements and deadlines, also varies depending on the scholarship.
Financial Aid Throughout Your College Years
You’ll need to complete the FAFSA (including completing the verification requirements if you’re selected) every year you’re in school, and your federal aid eligibility will be reassessed based on the information you enter each year on the FAFSA. Other state and college aid may also be reassessed every year. This means that the types and amounts of aid you receive in your first year may change over time.
To maintain eligibility for federal aid, you’ll also need to meet certain academic standards set by your school. These are called satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards, and typically involve keeping a certain GPA and completing enough courses to be on track for graduation. Other state and college aid programs may have different requirements. Visit your school’s website or ask your financial aid office to learn about what is needed to keep all your different sources of financial aid.
A resource from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, created with support from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS)