The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as FAFSA, is the gateway to most types of college financial aid. This application asks questions about the student and family’s financial situation to assess financial needs. The federal government, state governments, and individual schools use the information to determine your financial aid award.
Am I Eligible For Financial Aid?
Most students are eligible for at least some financial aid. However, you must have completed high school or the equivalent and enrolled in a degree-seeking program. You also must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or eligible non-citizen with a Social Security Number. In addition, you must not be in default on previous federal student loans, and you must not have received any drug convictions while receiving federal student aid in the past.
Some types of financial aid, like grants and subsidized student loans, are based on financial need. Therefore, your eligibility for these types of assistance will depend on the answers you provide in the FAFSA. However, other kinds of financial aid, like unsubsidized student loans and parent loans, are available to all eligible applicants, regardless of financial need.
What Types of Aid Are Available?
- Grants are the most coveted type of student aid because they do not require repayment. The most common type of grant is the Federal Pell Grant. These grants of up to $6,495 per year for 2021-22 go to students that demonstrate significant financial need.
- Student loans are available to all applicants, regardless of financial need. The most common program is the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, which offers student loans and parent loans directly from the federal government. Students who have demonstrated significant financial need may receive subsidized Direct Loans or Perkins Loans. The federal government will pay the interest on these loans while enrolled in school.
- Federal work-study awards allow students to work part-time, on or off-campus, during the school year to help pay for some of their education costs.
How and When do I Apply?
You need to apply before each school year for which you want to receive financial aid. Fill out the application at FAFSA.ed.gov as early as January 1st of the calendar year in which the school year begins. For example, if you are applying for aid for the 2021-22 school year, you can submit the FAFSA as early as January 1st, 2021. The federal deadline for the application is June 30th at the end of the school year, although states and schools often have earlier deadlines.
You will need a prior-year tax return and W-2 statements to fill out the application correctly. You will also need current bank statements and records of any other investments. If you are a dependent student, as most undergraduates are, you will also need your parents’ financial information.
What Happens After I Apply?
As soon as you complete your FAFSA, it goes into the processing stage. Each college you list on the FAFSA will receive your information the following day. Then, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via email about 3 to 5 days after you submit the FAFSA.
The SAR will tell you your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) if your application is complete. That is the amount the federal formulas determine your family should pay for this year of college. Your college will use your EFC to determine your exact financial aid award. If you did complete your application, the SAR would let you know what you need to do to finish it.