What is the FAFSA?
A Student's Guide to Applying for Financial Aid

By Taylor Nichols | Published 4/29/2021

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is the one-stop application for aid from the federal government, state governments, and colleges you want to attend. Every year, the Federal Student Aid office provides more than $120 billion in federal aid and loans to help students across the country pay for college. Some scholarships and other funding options also require you to submit the FAFSA as part of the application process.

Common misconceptions about the FAFSA cause millions of students to leave free college funding on the table each year. One in three high school seniors and their families do not complete the FAFSA because they think they won't get any financial aid, aren't interested in student loans, or are confused about the application. However, the majority of students do qualify for some type of financial aid, which includes gift-aid like grants and scholarships alongside the work-study program and low-interest student loans. Nearly 90% of full-time students pursuing their first degree use federal financial aid to pay for college, and completing the FAFSA is the first step in applying for these funds.

As tuition costs continue to rise, securing financial aid remains one of the most important factors in being able to attend college. The process can seem daunting at first – that's why we've created this guide to help you figure out how to apply for financial aid, what kind of funding you might get, and how to use financial aid to minimize student debt.

What is the FAFSA?
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the one-stop application for aid from the federal government, state governments, and colleges you want to attend.

How Does the FAFSA Work?

The FAFSA asks for information about your income, family size, how much money you have, and other factors that help determine your aid eligibility. It also asks which schools you want to receive your aid application. The U.S. Department of Education sends your FAFSA to each college you listed, and these schools use it to determine how much financial aid you qualify for. This calculation is based on the cost of attendance (COA) at that school and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or how much you and your family can afford to pay. In order to receive a financial aid award, you'll need to be accepted to the college, but you can still list a school even if you haven't applied yet. Each school you are accepted to will send you a financial aid award package to tell you how much gift aid, work-study funding, and federal student loans you can receive if you choose to enroll at that school.

Many incoming undergraduate students are considered dependent, which means their parents' income will be factored into their aid eligibility. Students who are older than 24, married, have children, or enroll in graduate school are considered independent, and their aid eligibility is based only on their income. Both types of applicants can get financial aid.

What is Expected Family Contribution (EFC)?

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is one of several factors — along with your enrollment status, your year in college, and the total expense of attending your school — that is used to calculate how much federal financial aid you are eligible to receive. Your EFC is determined by the answers you provide in the FAFSA form regarding your (or your parents') income, assets, family size, and the number of family members attending college. If your or your parents' income is less than $27,000, your EFC is automatically set at 0. However, if you are an independent student, you must have dependents other than a spouse to qualify for the zero EFC.

Schools subtract your EFC from the Cost of Attendance (COA), which includes tuition, books, room and board, and more, to determine how much aid you are eligible for.

COA − EFC = Demonstrated Financial Need

However, many families find they end up spending more than the EFC for a student's college education. Since the term “Expected Family Contribution” is somewhat misleading, it will be changed to Student Aid Index (SAI) starting on July 1, 2023, for the 2023-2024 award year.

Should I Fill Out the FAFSA?

For most students, the short answer is yes. The FAFSA is the standard method for most organizations to award financial aid. Many students skip the FAFSA because they think they won't qualify for any aid, or because they're not sure how to access and fill out the application. An analysis by NerdWallet found that one-third of high school graduates didn't fill out the FAFSA in 2018, leaving $2.6 billion in Pell Grant funding unclaimed. Students who don't fill out the FAFSA will need to rely on private loans if their family cannot afford to pay out of pocket, which can end up costing much more in the long-run due to higher interest rates, less flexible repayment plans, and no access to loan forgiveness options.

Erin Powers Headshot

"The biggest mistake that many students and families make is not filing the FAFSA in the first place because they think they won't qualify for aid. The FAFSA opens the door to many different opportunities for financial aid, and the sooner students apply, the better, as state grant agencies and scholarship organizations— which often have a limited pot of funds to give out on a first-come, first-serve basis— usually require students to have filed a FAFSA in order to receive aid."


Erin Powers
Spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

There are few, if any, downsides to filling out the FAFSA. One of the biggest deterrents is that the application process can be time-consuming and requires a lot of information. Having the necessary paperwork ready when you begin the form will make applying much easier. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool also streamlines the process for many students by automatically transferring the required tax information into the FAFSA form.

Another deterrent is the belief that filling out the FAFSA is just for student loans, or that once you apply for aid you can't turn down a loan offer. However, applying for aid through the FAFSA means students might qualify for grant money and other aid they don't have to repay. Taking out loans is a choice students can make down the road or refuse altogether. You don't have to accept loans you are offered, and you can choose to accept a smaller loan amount than the total you are offered if you want to borrow less. You may also have the option to accept the loan amount later on after declining if you change your mind.

Students from middle and high-income families should still apply as the calculations for determining aid are complicated, making it difficult to predict whether or not you'll qualify. Students who are confused by the application can find answers to many of their questions in this guide, or through nonprofit groups and other agencies that support students through the application process. If you still can't find the answer to your question or are confused, contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center to get one-on-one support through a live chat option, by email, or over the phone.

Am I Eligible for Financial Aid Through the FAFSA?

Generally, financial aid recipients must be U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens, have a Social Security number, be accepted to or enrolled in a degree or certificate program from an accredited school, and have a high school diploma or GED. There are some specific instances where students who don't meet these requirements can still get aid detailed on the Federal Student Aid website.

Aside from these requirements, students must maintain academic progress during their studies to keep their financial aid. Each college sets its own standards for defining academic progress. People assigned male at birth also must register with the Selective Service.

Does the FAFSA Cover Graduate School?

Although the Pell Grant is typically limited to undergraduate degrees, graduate students are still eligible for federal aid through FAFSA. Students looking to enroll in graduate school may still qualify for the TEACH Grant, the work-study program, direct unsubsidized loans, grad-PLUS loans, and funding from their state and school. Graduate students can minimize their student loans by seeking out scholarships, research grants, or part-time work related to their degree through their university. Some graduate students choose to earn their master's or doctorate online through part-time or accelerated programs that allow them to continue to work while earning their degrees. To help students decide whether a graduate degree will be financially worth it, we've ranked online master's programs by earning potential.

Do I Need to Have Good Grades to Get Financial Aid?

The federal government does not take GPA into account when awarding most types of federal funding. However, students must meet their school's requirements for maintaining "satisfactory academic progress" to be eligible for aid and continue receiving it. Typically this includes taking a minimum number of courses and maintaining a 2.0 GPA once enrolled. If your grades begin to fall or you are considering dropping credits or taking a quarter off, check with the financial aid office or academic advisor at your school to determine how this could affect your financial aid.

Can International Students Apply for Financial Aid Through the FAFSA?

Most of the time, international students do not qualify for federal financial aid. Non-U.S. citizens who do qualify for federal financial aid include U.S. nationals, U.S. permanent residents, refugees, those who hold T-visas or have parents who have T-1 nonimmigrant status, and citizens of the Federal States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau. There are a few other exceptions to this for non-citizens listed on the Federal Student Aid website. International students should check with the financial aid office at their school to find out if institutional aid is available to them.

How to Apply for Financial Aid Through the FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA form is the first and most important step in mapping out how you will pay for college. It can get complicated, but this step-by-step guide will help you navigate the process.

Go to the FAFSA portal: Go to www.fafsa.gov to access the FAFSA form. You can start your application, save it, and finish it later if you need to. You can also print the form and submit it by mail or complete it through the myStudentAid mobile app.

Create an FSA ID username and password: Create these using your Social Security number (SSN) and name as it appears on your Social Security card. Dependent students and a parent each need to have an FSA ID to submit the application online and use the myStudentAid app. It's best to do this early on in case your information needs to be verified, which can take up to three days.

Gather materials needed to apply: You'll need your Social Security number, permanent resident card (if you have one), driver's license (if you have one), W-2 forms, federal tax records, and information on your investments, cash, savings, and checking account balances. You may also have the option to have your tax information automatically entered through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. You can request a digital or physical copy of your tax return through the IRS website.

Log in and start your application: Once you have an FSA ID, you can use it to log in and start filling out your FAFSA. If you're a dependent student, make sure to use your FSA ID on the application rather than your parent's.

Check and submit your application: Ensure all of the information you entered is correct before submitting. Once your application is processed, you'll receive a Student Aid Report from the U.S. Department of Education which will include a copy of the information you provided and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

Important Dates and Deadlines for Submitting the FAFSA

Whether you're planning on enrolling on-campus or applying to an online degree program, it's critical for students to know when the FAFSA opens and the deadline to submit it. You'll also want to note the deadline for submitting corrections in case there is an error on your application.

October 1

FAFSA Opens
for the next school year

June 30

FAFSA Closes
the school year you are applying for

Sept. 10, 2022

Submit corrections and updates
(Sept. 11, 2021 for the 21-22 school year)

Federal aid plays a big role in funding education, but many students also rely on state and school grants to pay for college. Even if a student thinks they won't qualify for federal financial aid, they'll need to fill out the FAFSA to apply for aid from their school and state. Make sure to check your state and school financial aid application deadlines, as they are usually much earlier than the federal deadline. Some states just ask that students turn the FAFSA in as soon as possible after it becomes available on October 1, and school priority deadlines can occur as early as November 15. Check your state deadline on the Federal Student Aid website, and check the deadlines for each school you're interested in to ensure you get your application in on time. You should still submit your FAFSA even if you miss a state or school deadline, as you may still qualify for federal funding or other aid.

When Should I Submit the FAFSA?

Keeping track of all the deadlines can get complicated. A good rule of thumb is to turn it in as soon as you can after October 1 as some funding is first-come, first-serve. Students can prepare ahead of time by gathering their financial documents, driver's license, Social Security card, and other required information to make the application process easier.

Key Benefits of Submitting Early:

You might miss out on free money if you wait. While this is not a concern for federal aid such as the Pell Grant, other aid funds do run out, including some state and institutional grants. Apply as early as you can to receive the full amount of aid you qualify for and to reduce the amount of money you'll need to borrow.

You could get your financial aid offers earlier. This leaves you with more time to weigh your options if you are considering multiple schools.

You'll have a better idea of how much you'll need to pay for college, which will give you more time to plan for the upcoming school year. This way, you can figure out how much you want to save for the next year, and whether you'll want to apply for additional scholarships, find a job, or consider other avenues for additional funding.

What Types of Aid Can I Get by Filling Out the FAFSA?

Submitting the FAFSA opens up a range of possible aid opportunities for students. The most common types of aid include grants, work-study, and loans.

Grants

Grants are essentially free money awarded to students to pay for their education. They do not need to be repaid and are usually need-based, meaning they are awarded to students who have a high financial need. The Pell Grant is the largest federal grant program, providing nearly $28 billion in gift aid to students during the 2019-20 school year. About one-third of undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients, who are students from lower-income families earning their first degree. The maximum Pell Grant amount, which can change annually, is $6,495 for the 2021-22 school year. The Pell Grant does not run out, so any eligible student will receive it.

other federal grants:

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is a federal grant program reserved for low-income undergraduate students. This one is less common than the Pell Grant and is offered to students who have exceptional financial need. Students can receive between $100 and $4,000 from this grant program, depending on a variety of factors. FSEOG funding is first-come, first-serve, so qualified students who apply late may not receive an award if the funds have already been depleted.

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

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant is for students who plan to work in education and it awards up to $4,000 per year to students enrolled in teacher preparation programs. This grant program is available to students in undergraduate and graduate programs. To receive this grant, students must teach for four years in a high-need field at a school that serves low-income students after they graduate.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant provides additional funding for students who lost a parent in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 and do not qualify for the Pell Grant.

Work-study

Students who qualify for the federal work-study program can work part-time to help pay for their education or living expenses while they're in school. Work-study jobs are often on campus, but sometimes can be off-campus through partnerships with nonprofit organizations or public agencies. The program emphasizes public service and work related to a student's field of study. Work-study students are limited to working part-time and receive a paycheck to help cover costs like books, food, and living expenses. Undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies students are all able to participate in the work-study program if they demonstrate financial need.

Loans

The FAFSA also qualifies students for federal student loans. These are generally preferable to private loans, as the interest rates tend to be lower and give students more flexible repayment options. Federal student loan offers are included in your financial aid package from an individual school and are intended to help students pay for educational costs like tuition or room and board that grants and other funding don't cover. While loan offers may be included in your financial aid package, you do not have to take them. You can choose to borrow a portion of what is offered or decline them altogether.

The federal government offers three types of student loans:

Direct subsidized loans, also known as Stafford Loans

Direct subsidized loans, also known as Stafford Loans, are available for undergraduate students with financial need. Students can borrow up to $5,500 per year depending on factors such as what year they are in school and their dependency status. The direct subsidized loan offers fixed interest rates, and interest usually doesn't start to accrue unless a student is no longer enrolled or drops to part-time enrollment.

Direct unsubsidized loans, sometimes called Unsubsidized Stafford Loans

Direct unsubsidized loans, sometimes called Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, are available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree students, regardless of their financial need. Students can borrow up to $20,500 per year, and interest accrues while a student is still in school, even if they are enrolled full-time.

Direct PLUS loans

Direct PLUS loans are for parents who are borrowing money to help fund their child's education, graduate students, and professional students. Parents can use this loan to borrow for their dependent undergraduate child (often called the parent PLUS loan), and graduate and professional students can also take out direct PLUS loans (generally called grad PLUS loans). The PLUS loan offers the highest interest rate for federal loan options, and students or parents must meet credit history requirements to borrow from this pool of funding.

What Can I Use Financial Aid Money For?

Federal financial aid is meant to be used for education expenses. Typically, grant and loan money is automatically applied towards your tuition, fees, and room and board if you live on campus. Whatever is left over will be given to you by your school, often in the form of a check or direct deposit into your bank account. Work-study money is given directly to you by your school in the form of a paycheck or direct deposit, and you can use this money for tuition, fees, room and board, and other costs related to your education. Financial aid money should be used for education expenses, and any leftover funding can go to living expenses, including:

  • Rent, bills, food, and other costs if you live off-campus
  • Textbooks and other course materials
  • A laptop for school
  • Transportation
  • Childcare

You can't spend financial aid money on leisure items like concert tickets or vacations that aren't educational or living expenses. Other items, such as clothes for an internship interview, can be purchased with financial aid funding as long as they are related to your education.

If you use scholarship or grant funding for tuition and fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, that funding will be tax-free. Keep track of how much you spend on these expenses so you can access it when you go to file your taxes. If this funding is applied to room and board, travel, and optional equipment, it counts as taxable income.

How much Financial Aid Will I Get from the FAFSA?

How much funding you'll qualify for depends on a few different factors, like income and family size. It also depends on the cost of attendance (COA) and how much institutional aid a school offers. If the cost of attendance is higher at a particular school, you may qualify for more aid. Some institutions also provide more funding for low- and middle-income students than others.

Generally speaking, low-income families will qualify for the maximum amount of federal aid available through grants, federal work-study, and direct unsubsidized loans. Aid awards will vary for middle- and high-income families based on factors such as how many family members are enrolled in college, what assets a family has, and the cost of attendance for a student's chosen university. These calculations hinge on many different factors, which makes estimating financial aid a complicated process. Because most students are eligible for some form of federal assistance and additional state and institutional aid is available, all students should consider completing a FAFSA.

Students can use the FAFSA4caster tool to get an estimate for how much federal financial aid they'll qualify for. When using this tool, it's important to note that this is an estimate and your aid eligibility could be affected by minor differences in your information. The FAFSA has specific requirements for who is included in your household size and asks for tax information from two years prior. This tool also does not estimate state or school aid you may be eligible for, which often makes a big difference in how much funding students receive.

Filing as an Independent Student?

If you're an independent student, you may be eligible for more financial aid. Independent students qualify for more unsubsidized Stafford loan funding per year and receive the Pell Grant more often than dependent students. If you're considered independent for the FAFSA, you may be able to appeal your financial aid package due to additional costs and responsibilities that other college students may not have, such as childcare. Talk to your financial aid office to explain your circumstances in more detail and find out if you qualify for more aid.

Am I a Dependent or Independent Student on the FAFSA?

The major difference between the dependent and independent student classification on the FAFSA is that, as a dependent student, your parents' income and assets are factored into how much aid you get. As an independent student, you only include information about your household income, which includes you and your spouse if you're married.

You are a dependent student if all of these apply to you:
Under 24 years old
Not married
Not an active-duty military member or veteran
Not in graduate school
Not an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship
Do not have children
Not an orphan and have not been in foster care any time after you turned 13
Not an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless
You are an independent student if any of these apply to you:
24 years or older
Married
Have children who get more than half of their support from you
Have other dependents who live with you and get more than half of their support from you
Are an active duty military member (not for training purposes) or veteran
Are an emancipated minor, unaccompanied youth who is homeless or at risk of being homeless, were in foster care at age 13 or older, or both of your parents are deceased
Evangeline Cummings Headshot

"If you're pursuing a degree in an online format, it's just like going to college on campus. So in thinking about how you're going to pay for it, the challenge is figuring out how much things cost. Fortunately, by federal statute, universities, no matter if it's residential or online, are required to provide the cost of attendance. The mechanisms for applying for financial aid should also be clearly displayed on the university's website to help you kind of navigate your options."


Evangeline Cummings
Assistant Provost for Teaching and Technology, and Director of University of Florida Online

Do online schools accept the FAFSA?

Yes, most accredited online schools that offer two- and four-year degrees do accept the FAFSA, and online students are eligible based on the same criteria as their on-campus counterparts. The process for applying for financial aid as an online student is the same as it is for students who attend on campus. Federal and state financial aid through the FAFSA will cover online classes, but some institutional grants or scholarships may be only available to campus-based students. Some schools also have scholarships and grants specifically for online or distance learners.

If you plan to attend college online and believe you'll need financial aid, start by checking the school's website for federal aid information to confirm the school accepts the FAFSA. If the answer is not readily available there, contact the school you're planning to attend to ask whether the school accepts the FAFSA. Because most accredited schools accept FAFSA, you can also check the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to see if your intended school is listed.

Troubleshooting the FAFSA

The FAFSA can be complex, especially if you're filling it out for the first time. One of the most common issues students face is accidentally answering questions wrong because they aren't aware of the specific definitions on the FAFSA for things like who to include in the household size. The U.S. Department of Education blog outlines some FAFSA-specific definitions that might be confusing for students. Make sure to check these to avoid common errors that could delay your financial aid award.

Some of the best resources available to students are the FAFSA helpline and live chat options. Students can start a live chat or call a representative from the Federal Student Aid Information Center to ask specific questions and get answers from a FAFSA expert. The FAFSA helpline can be reached at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). The Federal Student Aid office help center also allows students to type in their questions and find answers on the website.

If you make a mistake on your FAFSA and need to correct it, you'll need to log in on fafsa.gov and select the "Make FAFSA Corrections" option. You can add or remove colleges, change your email or address, and correct any other issues. The only thing you can't change is your Social Security number.

If you have problems with your FSA ID, you can select "forgot username" or "forgot password" to reset either of these. If you still have difficulties accessing your account, you should call the FSA helpline to get them resolved.

"Many associations, community based organizations, colleges, and counselors work directly with students and employ a number of supports to help reduce potential barriers in the process. NCAN's Form Your Future website includes a number of practices, guides, and resources to consider. The College Board Opportunity Scholarships program also includes FAFSA completion help. Students can learn more at getfafsahelp.org, where Wyatt – a free, SMS-based chatbot, offers personalized, easy-to-understand guidance through the FAFSA process, 24/7."


Dean Bentley
Executive Director, Financial Aid Engagement & Services, The College Board

You've Submitted the FAFSA – What Happens Next?

Completing the FAFSA is one of the biggest and most exciting steps students take towards making their college plans a reality. While it feels good to be able to put the paperwork behind you, you might be wondering what to expect next.

01
Student Submits Application
By college, state, or federal deadline
02
U.S. Department of Education Processes Application
Within 3-5 days for web applications and 7-10 days for paper applications
03
College(s) Receive Student Aid Report (SAR)
Typically within a day of the application being processed, or longer if a paper form is used
04
Student Receives SAR
Within 2 weeks of submitting the FAFSA
05
College(s) Determine Aid
Varies by college
06
Student Receives Aid Award
Varies by college and when the FAFSA is submitted, but schools typically send award letters around the same time as acceptance letters
07
Student Accepts or Declines Aid Award
Deadlines set by individual colleges

After you complete the application, it goes to the U.S. Department of Education for processing. If you submit online, it should be processed within three to five days. If you mailed in a physical copy, it should be processed within 7-10 days. You can check the status of your application by logging into fafsa.gov or the myStudentAid app. If you submitted online, the status of your application will be available right away. If you mailed in a paper copy, the status should be available online around 7-10 days after you mailed it. You can check the status to see if your application is still processing, has been processed, is missing signatures, or if there are any other issues that need attention.

The Department of Education will send you a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR), either to your email or as a letter, which will include all of the information you submitted on the FAFSA form. Check this to make sure the information you included in your application is accurate. If you notice an error, you'll need to correct your FAFSA. Your SAR will also include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is used by schools to determine how much aid you qualify for.

Some students may be selected for verification, which requires the submission of additional documents to the college to show the information provided on the FAFSA is accurate. Your SAR may say you've been selected, or your school's financial aid office could contact you. This happens less frequently for students who use the IRS data retrieval tool to input their information. If you're selected for verification, it's best to get the required paperwork in as soon as possible. The process can take anywhere from a few days to four weeks, depending on the student and school.

Matt Newlin Headshot

"If you get a letter that says you've been selected for verification or an email that says there's something missing from your FAFSA, you're not in trouble. Don't feel like it's saying you don't belong or you're not allowed to go to school. Ask for some clarification from your financial aid office, maybe your high school counselor, maybe if you have an older sibling or cousin who's gone through college, ask them about it. Asking questions is the best thing you can do."


Matt Newlin
independent consultant with over 15 years of experience in higher education and financial aid.

After your application is processed, the Department of Education sends your SAR to each college you listed on the FAFSA. If you apply and are accepted to a school, the financial aid office at that school will determine how much aid you can receive based on your EFC and the cost of attendance, which is a number calculated by the school that includes tuition and fees, room and board, and other educational expenses. They'll award you any federal, state, and school aid that you qualify for, including work-study and federal loan offers.

You should review your aid award and make sure to ask any questions you may have. Some aid packages might be confusing because gift aid and loans are both included in your aid award letter. Ensure you know exactly how much gift aid you are offered, how much it will cost you to attend that college, and how much funding you'll need to borrow in student or private loans to make up the difference. If you are considering multiple schools, you can weigh each financial aid package's pros and cons to help determine which college is the best choice for you. You will need to accept or decline your financial aid offers by a certain date set by your school.

Resubmitting the FAFSA

You must re-submit the FAFSA each year to get financial aid for the next year, and your award may change based on factors such as your age, income, or your year in school. FAFSA renewal is typically a much easier process than the initial application because the form is pre-filled with some information from the previous year. Most students just need to update income and tax information and anything else that has changed. You can log in to the same account using your FSA ID, make any changes, and sign and submit again.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Students and the FAFSA

Many families have gone through significant financial changes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent survey done by Junior Achievement and the PMI Educational Foundation found that half of high school seniors who graduated in 2020 changed their college plans during the pandemic, and 40% said COVID-19 impacted their ability to pay for college.

Higher education experts are also concerned by the decrease in students completing the FAFSA this year, which are often seen as an indicator of future enrollment rates. According to data from the National College Attainment Network, FAFSA completion rates for February 2021 were down 9.4% from the same time last year. The data also shows a more significant drop in FAFSA completion rates at high schools that serve more students of color.

How will unemployment due to COVID-19 affect my FAFSA?

First and foremost, if your family's financial situation changes after you submit your application or receive aid offers from your school, you should contact your financial aid office to see what adjustments they can make. You are required to use your 2019 tax information for the 2021-22 school year FAFSA, even if your financial situation has changed since then. If this is the case, you will need to contact the financial aid office at your school to explain the change in income and find out what your options are. They will be able to factor these changes in when creating your financial aid package.

Students whose financial situation changes after they already receive their award can also ask for an appeal, or professional judgement. You can ask for an appeal based on many different changes, including a job loss, a reduction in work hours, someone in the household having a child, or anything else that may change your ability to pay for school. Students interested in requesting an appeal can use Swift Student, a free online resource that provides appeal letter templates. Swift Student also provides information on how to ask for additional funding to cover childcare costs, financial emergencies, to purchase a computer for school, and many other financial needs that may not be captured by FAFSA. This resource will walk you through how to ask for an appeal, what information you'll need, and how to submit the letter to your financial aid office.

Matt Newlin Headshot

"Students can always appeal their financial aid award package. If there's any significant change in the household's financial status, students have the right and responsibility to go and appeal their financial aid eligibility because all of that can make a difference between receiving a Pell Grant and not receiving a Pell Grant or being awarded subsidized loans or being awarded an unsubsidized loan. It's really critical that students know that they can always come back and appeal based on circumstances."


Matt Newlin
independent consultant with over 15 years of experience in higher education and financial aid.

For independent students, if you or your spouse is a dislocated worker due to COVID-19 and your household income is less than $50,000, the financial aid office will not include your family's assets in their EFC calculations. If you are a dependent student and one of your parents is unemployed due to COVID-19 and your family income is less than $50,000, you also qualify for the simplified EFC calculation. This means you could qualify for additional funding.

I'm a Parent or Guardian – How Can I Help My Child With the FAFSA?

Dependent students are required to provide information about parent income on the FAFSA to determine their aid eligibility. But who counts as a parent? For the FAFSA, a parent is defined as a biological or adoptive parent or someone who the state has determined to be the child's parent. This means that legal guardians, grandparents, foster parents, widowed stepparents, and other family members will not count as a parent unless they've legally adopted the student. Students who are considered dependent but are not able to provide parent information should still complete the FAFSA but will need to work with their school's financial aid office to determine what options they have. More information is available on the Federal Student Aid website.

Many parents are confused as to why their student needs information about their parents' income to apply for financial aid, especially if they no longer support their child financially or won't be paying for their college expenses.

Even if you do not support your child financially, the federal government still considers many students to be financially dependent on their parents to pay for part of their education. Providing information about your income and assets does not obligate you to take on any responsibility for educational costs, and it won't affect you financially in any way. The government only uses this information to calculate how much financial aid your child is eligible for. If your child is considered dependent on the FAFSA and you do not want to provide your information, they will not be able to qualify for any financial aid, including federal student loans under their name.

Matt Newlin Headshot

"I encourage every parent, if they have a good relationship with their student with their child, to submit the FAFSA if the student is dependent. It is better for the student if the parents submit their information. They're not required to take out any loans or any types of aid, they're not signing anything, even though they sign the FAFSA, they're not signing to take on a loan. All of that is optional. But it is in the best interest of the student for them to do that, because it makes the student eligible for the most aid in the student's name."


Matt Newlin
independent consultant with over 15 years of experience in higher education and financial aid.

If you're a parent helping your student fill out the FAFSA, one of the most important things you can do is make sure you have all the information they'll need. Having things like your W-2 and federal tax return ready when it comes time to fill out the application will make the process much easier.

Parent Information Needed on the FAFSA for Dependent Students:

  • Social Security number, and Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal income tax returns from 2019 for the 2021-22 school year - You can request a copy of your tax return on the IRS website
  • W-2s and other records of money earned
  • Bank statements and records of investments and other assets

Another important thing to note is that parents need their own FSA ID to electronically sign the FAFSA. You'll need to create this using your Social Security number, full name, and date of birth. You'll want to use your full name that is on record with the Social Security Administration. If you do not have a Social Security number, you should enter all zeros on the FAFSA form where it asks for your SSN. Do not use a Taxpayer Identification Number. You also won't be able to make an FSA ID, so you'll need to sign a physical copy of the application instead of signing electronically. Your child can complete the application online through the federal website and select the option to print a signature page at the end. Print and sign this page, and then mail it to the address on the form. See the Federal Student Aid website for more information on filing the FAFSA for parents who are not U.S. citizens.

As a parent, you have the option to take out a Parent PLUS loan to help cover the cost of your child's education. There are credit history requirements for this loan, and in most cases, you must be the biological or adoptive parent of a dependent student to access this funding. Direct PLUS loans have a fixed interest rate, and this rate changes annually depending on when you take the loan out. The current interest rate is 5.30% for loans disbursed between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions About the FAFSA

What is a Schedule 1 FAFSA?

The Schedule 1 form is used to report income adjustments to tax returns for additional income, such as unemployment payments, capital gains, or alimony payments. One of the FAFSA questions asks whether you (if you're filing as an independent student) or your parents (if you're filing as a dependent student) have filed or will be filing a Schedule 1 with your income taxes. The answer is factored into the calculations for your Expected Family Contribution or Student Aid Index.

Answering the Schedule 1 question has become much easier in recent years. If you're using the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to pull information from your tax returns, the answer will automatically populate on your FAFSA form. If you're entering data manually, the FAFSA help tools will guide you through the process of answering the question. Generally speaking, you'll answer "No" if you or your parents don't need to file a Schedule 1 or if you are filing to report one or more items listed in the help tool. You'll answer "Yes" if you have filed or are planning to file a Schedule 1. You can also answer "Don't know" if you're still unsure after reading the help tool's guided questions.

How do I change my name on the FAFSA?

If you have changed your name since filling out your FAFSA application, in cases of marriage, divorce, or other circumstances, it is possible for you to update your name on the form. First, you must update your name on your driver's license and with the Social Security Administration (SSA) by submitting a name change request through the nearest Social Security office. Once these changes have been processed, you have three options for changing or correcting your name on your FAFSA form:

  1. You can log in at fafsa.gov, go to the "My FAFSA" page, select "Make FAFSA Corrections," then make your changes and submit the new information.
  2. If you submitted a paper application, write the corrections or updates on your copy of the form, make a new copy, and mail it to the address shown on your Student Aid Report (SAR).
  3. Contact the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend and ask the financial aid administrator to electronically change your records.

Why do I need my driver's license to fill out the application?

The FAFSA form asks for the student's driver's license number, but it is not necessary to have a license to fill out the form. This information is requested simply as an additional form of accurate identification in conjunction with your Social Security number, and it will not be used to check your driving record. If you don't have a driver's license or state-issued ID card, you may leave this question blank or enter "N/A" for "Not applicable." However, if you have a driver's license or ID, you should input the number on the FAFSA form. About one-third of all FAFSA applications are checked for verification, and having this information already on the form will help expedite the verification process.

How do I find out my adjusted gross income?

Your adjusted gross income (AGI) is found toward the bottom of the first page of your tax returns from the previous year. Your AGI is more than the total of your wages. It's the calculation of your taxable income, which is determined by adding together all sources of income and then subtracting all eligible deductions. If you are a dependent living at home with your parents, you will list your parents' AGI on the FAFSA form. If your parents filed separate tax returns last year, enter the total of their combined AGIs from both tax returns.

All Sources of Income - Eligible Deductions = Taxable Income

To make things easier, consider using the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) when you're filling out your FAFSA form online. Following the instructions will guide you to the IRS website, where the tool will automatically input your (or your parents') AGI and other tax information into the FAFSA form.

If your taxable income (or your parents' taxable income) has been dramatically reduced in the current year, you'll want that reflected in your financial aid application. If so, fill out the FAFSA form as directed, using the AGI from the previous year. Then contact the financial aid office at the schools you're considering to inform them of recent changes in your financial status. They will take this into account when reviewing your application for aid.

How do I answer the application question about household size?

If you are a dependent living at home with your parents, you will calculate the size of your parents' household. You should include yourself and your parent(s) living in the household. You'll also include the number of other people (e.g., siblings or other relatives) living in the home who will receive more than half of their financial support from your parent(s) in the award year covered by the FAFSA form.

If you are self-supporting and live on your own, you will calculate the size of your own household. You should include yourself, your spouse if you're married, and any children who receive more than half their financial support from you (even if they don't live with you). You'll also include any unborn children you're expecting who will be born during the award year covered by the form, and any other people who live with you and will rely on you for more than half their financial support in the award year covered by the FAFSA form.

What is the Selective Service System?

At the time of this writing, federal law requires all people between the ages of 18 and 25 who were assigned male at birth to register with the Selective Service System in case the country needs to rapidly expand the armed forces. The system ensures that all eligible individuals have an equal chance of being drafted into military service.

One of the questions on the FAFSA form asks if you are registered with the Selective Service System. If you're aged 18-25 when you fill out the form and were assigned male at birth, you must be registered in order to apply for financial aid. If you have not yet registered, you can use the FAFSA form to register by marking the "Register me" box. If you are under 18 at the time you fill out the FAFSA form, you do not have to be registered. However, if you are at least 17 years and 3 months old, you have the option of taking care of this in advance by pre-registering on the Selective Service website and then answering "Yes" to the registration question. If you are over the age of 25 or were assigned female at birth, you should answer this question with "N/A." There are relatively few exemptions to this requirement, and they are listed on the Selective Service website.