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.
for the next school year
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 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.
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.
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 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
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 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
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