Thinking about higher education? You’re probably also thinking about financial aid.
If you’re going to school in the United States, your starting point will be the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You’re required to file the FAFSA if you want to receive any kind of federal financial aid, including grants and loans.
Even if you plan to pay for school without federal financial aid, admissions officers recommend you fill the FAFSA out anyway. Some private scholarships require applicants to submit a FAFSA as well. The application demonstrates your interest in the school, and can boost your chances of admission.
Since most college and university applicants are knee-deep in forms, we thought we’d ease your workload with a guide to the FAFSA.
Who should fill out the FAFSA?
Anyone who’s applying to a higher education program in the United States should fill out the FAFSA. Higher education programs include public and private universities, career-track programs, and undergraduate and graduate degrees—almost all formal education beyond high school.
As the name suggests, the FAFSA is free to file.
When should you fill out the FAFSA?
Early. Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, the FAFSA will be available October 1 of the year before applicants will be attending school. Applications are considered on a rolling basis up until a summer deadline (which varies), but don’t wait until then. The earlier you apply, the more federal aid programs you’ll be eligible for. State and school-specific aid programs often have even earlier deadlines.
You should re-file every year you’re in school. Even if your financial situation hasn’t changed, you’ll need to re-file to continue to receive aid.
How do you fill out the FAFSA?
The fastest and easiest method is online at fafsa.gov.
You can download a PDF of the FAFSA to file on paper, or call 1-877-4-ED-PUBS (1-877-433-7827) to have a hard copy delivered.
What information do you need to provide?
- Your Social Security Number. If you’re not a US citizen, you may still be eligible for aid. U.S. Nationals, U.S. Permanent Residents, or those with an Arrival and Departure Record (I-94) can submit a green card number or Alien Registration Number.
- Your tax information from the tax year two years prior to the academic year. (For instance, for the 2017-18 school year, you’ll need 2015’s tax returns.)
If you filed taxes, you most likely used one of the three individual tax forms—the IRS Form 1040, the 1040A, or the 1040EZ. Any of them will work for the FAFSA information. You may be able to input this information directly from the IRS website into the electronic FAFSA.
If your financial situation has changed significantly between the previous year and the time you’re filling out the FAFSA, you’re still required to use the previous year’s tax information. You can then explain and document the change in income—send this information directly to the schools where you’re applying. The school will work with you if you need extra help.
- Records of any income, such as W-2 forms from a job.
- Records of any untaxed income. Untaxed income can include child support, interest income, pensions, and veteran non-education benefits.
- Records of your savings and checking account balances and any other assets you have, such as money you make from real estate.
- Your driver’s license number, if you have one.
- A list of the schools you’re interested in attending, whether or not you’ve applied or been accepted yet. Add any school and program you’re thinking about applying to—if you eliminate some schools from consideration later, you won’t be penalized. You can add up to 10 schools.
Each school will receive your financial information after you’ve completed the form.
Whose financial information should you use?
If you’re a dependent student, use your information and your parents’ information.
You’re considered a dependent student if you are
- Under 24 years old by December 31 of the school year for which you’re applying.
- Attending an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program.
- Unmarried, with no children or dependents of your own.
Two points to keep in mind:
Even if you’re financially self-sufficient, the FAFSA still considers you a dependent student under the above circumstances.
Your parents should provide their info regardless of whether they’re planning on helping you pay. A complete application (one with both your info and your parents’) increases the amount of grants and loans available to you.
If you’re an independent student, use your information, and your spouse’s information if you’re married.
You’re considered an independent student if you are
- 24 years old or older by December 31 of the school year for which you’re applying.
- Attending a master’s or doctorate degree program. An applicant for a master’s or doctorate degree is considered an independent student, even if you’re under 24.
- Married, or separated but not divorced.
- Supporting children or dependents of your own.
- A veteran of the US Armed Forces or currently serving in active duty.
- An emancipated minor.
What’s the first step to filling out the FAFSA?
Create a Federal Student Aid ID, or FSA ID. This is a unique username/password combination you’ll use to log into the US Department of Education’s website and confirm your identity—your “legal signature.” It protects the security of sensitive info on your application. If you’re a dependent student, your parents create a separate FSA ID.
You can create an FSA ID here. Once you’ve created the ID, the Social Security Administration takes one to three days to verify the information. After that, you should receive an e-mail inviting you to get started with the FAFSA.
If you applied for aid before 2015—for instance, if you filed the FAFSA for a bachelor’s degree program and are now applying for a master’s program—you may have used a different identification called the Federal Student Aid PIN (Personal Identification Number). On May 10, 2015, the FSA ID replaced the PIN as a more secure form of identification. You’ll still need an FSA ID, but you can link your old PIN to your FSA ID to speed up the process. (Don’t worry, there’s a guide to acronyms below to help you keep up with the vocabulary.)
And if at any point you forget your FSA ID, the Student Aid website has password retrieval services. Try to create an ID which is easy for you to remember but hard for anyone else to guess, just like any other password you use. Don’t share your FSA ID with anyone. If you’re a dependent, your parents use their ID, and you use yours—you can’t log in with each other’s ID.
How does the online FAFSA work?
1. First, you’ll enter basic information as you would on a tax form – address, contact info, citizenship status, state residency, etc. You’ll be asked if you have any drug convictions that occurred during a time when you were receiving federal student aid. Saying “yes” won’t automatically disqualify you, but you may need to provide further information at a later date.
If you don’t plan to finish the form in one sitting, you can create a temporary password called a “save key” which lets you log out and log back in. (This is okay to share with your parents if they’re also completing the form.)
2. Then, have your tax returns and bank statements ready! You’ll be asked about adjusted gross income, earnings, and assets such as the balance on your savings and checking accounts. Use the information from the previous year’s tax return. If you didn’t file taxes for the year requested, you can calculate your adjusted gross income with only a W-2 or pay stub.
But if you did file taxes, plug in the information from the IRS website directly into the FAFSA form. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. You’ll be given this option on the electronic FAFSA.
3. If you’re a dependent, it’s time for your parents to enter their basic information. The FAFSA asks the number of people in your parents’ household, and how many plan to attend college at least part-time during the year you’re applying for aid. Then they’ll enter their financial info from their tax returns, just as you did in the previous step.
4. You, or your parents if you’re a dependent, will be asked if you receive benefits from any federal programs such as Medicaid and WIC. Saying “yes” won’t reduce your eligibility for aid.
5. You’ll enter the schools where you want the information sent. Each school has a code, and you can look up the school codes here.
6. Look over the form to make sure everything’s entered accurately and completely. You can make corrections after signing if you need to, but now’s the time to save yourself the trouble.
7. Sign and date the form. The FSA ID, which you’ll sign with electronically, is as legally binding as a signature.
Who sees your information? How is it used?
The schools you list on your application will all see your info. State and institutional financial aid programs will access your information to determine your eligibility for any grants, loans, and scholarships in addition to federal aid. Your information may also be disclosed through what’s called “routine use” to federal agencies, including the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and the Selective Service System.
The site you’ll use, fafsa.gov, is a secure website. There are ways to increase your security—close the browser after you’ve finished, and use the “virtual keyboard” option when you’re entering data.
When and how is financial aid offered?
After submitting the FAFSA, you’re automatically considered for any state aid available, as well as federal aid. Some states may require an additional application, but you can transfer your information from the federal FAFSA. Make sure to get a confirmation page after you submit online.
You should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) anywhere from three days to three weeks after you submit the application. The SAR is a summary of the data you sent in, not a summary of the aid you’ll receive. That comes later. Look over the SAR for any corrections you may still need to make.
A school may also contact you for verification, or documents which back up the info you submitted. Some schools verify applications routinely. Make sure to send in any documentation requested as soon as you can.
You can check the status of your application online while you’re waiting.
After your application’s processed, you’ll get what you’ve been waiting for: an aid offer. The aid offers are sent by individual schools which have accepted you. These offers will most likely come in the spring for a fall semester start.
Each school calculates aid differently. Many aid packages offer a mix of grants and scholarships (money you don’t have to pay back), loans (money you do have to pay back), and a remaining amount you’re expected to contribute.
How does the FAFSA determine how much aid you’ll receive?
Financial aid officers begin by determining your Cost of Attendance (COA) at the school. The COA includes tuition, fees, and room and board. It adds the cost of school supplies, transportation, and other factors such as costs related to a disability.
Then they use the data you reported on your FAFSA to calculate an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC considers the whole picture—not only income and assets, but family size, the number of family members in college at one time, the state you live in, and more. This detailed guide to the EFC formula shows exactly how the amount gets calculated.
The EFC, even though it stands for “Expected Family Contribution,” is not the amount you end up paying. It’s a number to help the financial aid office calculate how much need-based aid they should give you. Here’s the formula they use:
Cost of Attendance (COA) — Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Financial Need
The “financial need” number represents the maximum need-based aid you can receive. Need-based aid includes Pell Grants, Direct Subsidized Loans, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and federal work-study.
What if need-based aid doesn’t cover the COA? The financial aid office then fills in the gap with non-need-based aid. This aid can include Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal PLUS Loans for graduate students, and teacher education grants.
If you decide to attend the school, you aren’t required to accept all the aid you receive. If your aid offer includes more loan money than you’re comfortable taking out, for instance, you can accept some forms of aid and decline others. Make sure you let the school know your plan by their deadline.
Guide to acronyms
COA: Cost of Attendance. The sticker price of the program you’re attending, including cost of living calculations.
ED: Education Department (An “ED website”—an Education Department website)
EFC: Expected Family Contribution. This number is calculated using the data you provide on the FAFSA, and determines how much aid you’re eligible for.
FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid
Forms 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ: The three most commonly used individual tax forms. You’ll need the information from these forms for your FAFSA.
FSA ID: Federal Student Aid ID. Your unique username/password combo and identifier for the FAFSA; legally binding when used as a signature.
I-94: An Arrival and Departure record form. Non-US Citizens may need to provide details from this form for the FAFSA.
IRS: Internal Revenue Service. The agency with which Americans file taxes.
PIN: Personal Identification Number. A unique identifier used by student aid applicants before May 10, 2015, and replaced with the FSA ID. If you’re applying for aid for the first time, you won’t need a PIN.
SAR: Student Aid Report. A summary of the information you’ve entered on the FAFSA, provided for your reference.
W-2: A wage and tax statement you receive from an employer. You may need this information for the FAFSA.
Students and families with questions about the FAFSA can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center, known as the FSAIC, which provides support on behalf of the Department of Education. The FSAIC is available at 800-433-3243, or 800-730-8913 for applicants who are hearing-impaired. Questions can also be submitted via email, web chat or through the agency’s social media platforms on Twitter and Facebook.
“I’ve used the help line – it is helpful,” Andrews says. “There are times when it is busy, but eventually you will get through to an operator who can provide assistance, whether it’s technical assistance with your ID, the form or if it’s a question on a question. They understand all the questions on the form.”
Applying for financial aid can be intimidating. But there’s no need to fear. Filling out the FAFSA can be tedious and time-consuming, but by filling it out in full you make yourself eligible for a wide range of aid programs.