If you plan on applying for financial aid to help pay for college, you will undoubtedly come across FAFSA financial aid. It stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the vast majority of students seeking aid will end up filling it out. The U.S. Department of Education provides over $120 billion in funding for higher education each year in the form of grants, loans, and work-study funds, but in order to qualify for any of it, you have to first fill out the FAFSA. In this article, we will go over what FAFSA is, what applying entails, and what benefits it may grant you.
What is FAFSA Financial Aid?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step for most students looking to receive financial aid both from the government and, in many cases, from the individual school they are attending. It is a collection of you and your family’s monetary information that the Department of Education uses to determine how much financial aid you qualify for. This is a form you will be expected to fill out again before each new year detailing how/if your financial situation has changed. After you submit it successfully, you and your family will soon receive a Student Aid Report, which will detail some basic information about your eligibility for federal (and in some cases non-federal) financial aid. We’ll talk more about the SAR later though, first let’s detail what kind of documentation and data you will need to complete the FAFSA.
What do you need to fill out the FAFSA?
- After creating an FSA ID on studentaid.gov, families will be expected to produce copies of the following documents/information to successfully complete the FAFSA:
- Student Social Security Number
- Parents’ Social Security Numbers (if student is a dependent for all categories)
- Driver’s license number if a student has one
- Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
- Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, IRS 1040, Foreign tax return, IRS 1040NR, or IRS 1040NR-EZ, for the student and parents if you are a dependent student.
- Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits
- Information on cash, savings and checking account balances, investments (stocks, bonds, real estate but not including current home), and business/farm assets for student/parents
- At least one school you are applying to
Remember that the FAFSA financial aid is free (why it’s called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) no matter how many times you apply! If you need help, contacting the financial aid office of a school you intend to apply to is a great resource, or contacting the Federal Student Aid’s help center where you can either email or contact their help team directly during business hours.
And that’s it! If you applied correctly and electronically, you should receive your SAR in just a few days, a bit longer for physical mailed-in applications.
What is the Student Aid Report?
The SAR provides basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid, as well as a list of your answers provided on the FAFSA.
The most pertinent information to financial aid that your SAR contains is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is an index number derived from you and your family’s financial information and holdings that college financial aid offices use to determine the amount of financial aid you would receive if you attended their school. The formula used to calculate your EFC is established by law. The equation itself is a bit complicated, but the basic criteria it takes into consideration is taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security), family size, and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year your FAFSA is filed. More specific information about the equation can be found here.
If you provided an email with your application, you will receive instructions in your inbox on how to access the online copy of your SAR. If your email wasn’t valid, the Social Security Number you included did not match the one on file for you with the government, or you did not sign your FAFSA, you will receive your SAR through the physical mail. Usually, SARs become available within two weeks of filing your FAFSA.
What kind of Financial Aid can I receive once I’ve filled out the FAFSA?
The main federal resources a completed FAFSA provides students access with are:
- Federal Pell Grants
- Subsidized Loans through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
- Federal Work-Study (FWS)
- The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH Grant)
There are also many non-federal financial aid assistance packages you may qualify for. The Department of Labor has a handy tool on their website to look up different scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other financial aid award opportunities!
So how much Financial Aid am I going to get?
Unsurprisingly, it varies. Here’s generally the formula schools use to determine your financial aid package:
- The financial aid staff of a given school decides upon your cost of attendance (COA)
- Then, they consider your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
- They subtract your EFC from your COA to determine the amount of your financial need
- They determine from your need how much need-based aid you can get.
- To determine how much non-need-based aid you may receive, a school takes your cost of attendance and subtracts any financial aid you’ve already been awarded.
- That’s generally how it works with a given school. If you’d like more detailed information about this process you can access that here
When should I submit the FAFSA?
In short, as soon as possible. While the deadline for the FAFSA each school year is June 30th, the application itself opens October 1st. The reason to do it ASAP is because many schools award certain kinds of aid on a first-come first-serve basis, meaning it is in your best interest to get it in pronto! If you are currently in high school, we recommend applying at the same time you are applying to school, as a school needs to be listed on your FAFSA for them to receive your financial aid information. You should submit this even before you receive a financial aid decision. Some states require a certain order with which you list your schools with (such as state schools first for specific kinds of funding).
There is more information about that here.
Note: If you need to add more schools later to your FAFSA you can make FAFSA corrections and the school will be added within 3-5 days.
And that’s it! There is the quick-and-dirty of how the FAFSA works, and how it enables you to receive financial aid. Almost all students seeking financial aid for college will make use of it, so it’s worth it to start gathering the information needed for it even before senior year! For more detailed information about the FAFSA and financial aid in general, studentaid.gov is a great government run resource as well as where you will submit your FAFSA when the time comes!