What Is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)?

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DEFINITION
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a Department of Education form you fill out that gives you access to federal, state, and institutional financial aid to attend college or a career school.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a Department of Education form you fill out that gives you access to federal, state, and institutional financial aid to attend college or a career school. Schools and states use the information you provide on the FAFSA to distribute grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities, and student loans. 

Anyone planning to attend college or a career or graduate school should submit the FAFSA so they don’t miss out on financial aid. Learn how the FAFSA works, including how to fill it out and important deadlines to meet. 

Definition and Example of the FAFSA 

The FAFSA is a free form that students and, in many cases, their parents, need to submit to get access to federal financial aid they can use to help pay for college. This important form collects your personal and financial information to determine your financial need and in turn, your eligibility for aid. 

Financial aid often consists of grants, student loans, or work-study opportunities. The Department of Education distributed about $112 billion in financial aid to over 10.1 million students and their families in 2021.

You must fill out a FAFSA if you want access to federal student aid. If you choose not to fill out the application, funding options include scholarships, grants, and private student loans.

  • Acronym: FAFSA 

For example, Amir is applying for college, so he fills out a FAFSA (which includes the list of schools he wants to attend) and submits it. In three days to three weeks, the Department of Education (DOE) sends him a student aid report (SAR) detailing how much his family is expected to contribute to his college costs. The DOE then sends his information to the schools he applies to and, later, Amir’s schools notify him how much aid he can receive.

How Does the FAFSA Work? 

The FAFSA collects your personal and financial information to determine your eligibility for need-based and non-need-based aid. After you submit the form, the DOE will process your application and send you a SAR. The DOE will also send your FAFSA information to the schools you’d like to attend. Your schools will then notify you of how much aid you’re eligible to receive. 

Among the important factors that your schools use to determine your aid is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is an index number for determining your eligibility for aid and is based on the information you submit in your FAFSA. Schools subtract your EFC from their cost of attendance to figure out how much assistance to offer. 

Starting in July 2023, Expected Family Contribution will be renamed “Student Aid Index.”

You’ll usually receive your financial aid offer around the same time that you get your college acceptance letter. Your offer could contain the following types of financial aid: 

  • Grants: Consist of money you can use for school that typically doesn’t need to be repaid. One common grant is the Pell Grant, which is an award for up to $6,495 in the 2022-23 academic year.
  • Federal student loans: These loans are eligible for a variety of repayment plans and forgiveness programs, and they tend to have relatively low fixed rates. Available loans include direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, grad PLUS loans, and parent PLUS loans. 
  • Work-study: A federal program that offers on- or off-campus jobs to students with financial need. Note that a work-study offer doesn’t guarantee you a position; it’s a first-come, first-served opportunity that requires you to find and apply for work-study jobs.

Not only will your school use your FAFSA to put together your financial aid package, but your state and any private scholarship organizations you indicate on the form may use that information to award grants and scholarships. 

The average person takes less than an hour to fill out a FAFSA.

How Do You Fill Out the FAFSA? 

You can fill out the FAFSA online on the Federal Student Aid website, with the myStudentAid mobile app, or by printing it out and mailing it. Before you can get to work on this form, it’s recommended that you create your FSA ID. 

Your FSA ID allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically. If you’re a dependent student, one of your parents will need to create their own FSA ID, as well. You don’t need an FSA ID to fill out your FAFSA online or through the mail, but you must have one to submit your application through the myStudentAid app.

Once you’ve completed this step, you can start filling out the form. You’ll answer a series of questions that ask for your personal and financial details.  

Specifically, you’ll need to provide the following information: 

  • Social Security number (and your parents’ Social Security numbers if you’re a dependent)
  • Driver’s license number, if you have one 
  • Alien registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen 
  • Federal tax returns 
  • Records of any untaxed income, such as child support 
  • Information on your assets, such as bank account balances, investments, and real estate
  • Schools that you want to receive your financial aid information

Most students under the age of 24 are considered dependents, so your parents will need to provide this information about themselves, too. If you’ll turn 24 by Jan. 1 of the school year you need financial aid for or qualify as an independent student for another reason, you won’t need to provide parental information.

After you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you can log in to your Federal Student Aid account to check on its status. It usually takes three to five days to process your application. As long as the form says it’s been processed successfully, you don’t need to take any additional steps.

You’ll need to submit the FAFSA for every year you’re in school. After your first year, you’ll submit a renewal FAFSA, which might be a quicker process since it will be pre-filled with some of the information you provided the previous year. 

What Are the FAFSA Requirements and Income Limits? 

You’re eligible for financial aid if you:

  • Have financial need 
  • Are a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen 
  • Have a Social Security number (with some exceptions) 
  • Are enrolled or have been accepted to enroll at least half-time in an eligible program that will lead to a degree or certificate 
  • Have or will receive a high school diploma or other recognized equivalent 

Since there’s no income cutoff for the FAFSA, you should submit the application regardless of whether you think you have a financial need. The calculations for financial need are complex and based on a variety of factors, so it’s worth submitting this form to see what you get. 

There are some circumstances when you wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid. For example, you wouldn’t qualify if you’re planning to use the funds on something other than your education or if you’re already in default on a federal student loan. Plus, you’ll need to maintain satisfactory academic progress in school to maintain your eligibility for aid. 

When Is the FAFSA Deadline? 

The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1 every year. The federal filing deadline is June 30 the following year. Schools and states set their own FAFSA deadlines, which tend to fall much earlier than the federal deadline. To find a school’s deadline, you can look on the financial aid section of its website or reach out to its financial aid office directly.

Try to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible, though, since some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile

In addition to the FAFSA, some schools require another financial aid form called the CSS Profile. Provided by the College Board, the CSS Profile paves the way for financial aid from colleges and scholarship programs rather than federal financial aid. 

The CSS Profile costs $25 to send to your first school and $16 for additional schools. You can qualify for a fee waiver if your family’s adjusted gross income is $100,000 or below.

Some schools also ask for separate applications for scholarship awards, so make sure to check the requirements of every school on your list to maximize your chances for financial aid. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form you must submit to access federal financial aid. 
  • Schools, states, and, in some cases, private scholarship organizations use the information on your FAFSA to award financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study, or student loans. 
  • It’s a good idea to submit the FAFSA as close to the date it opens (Oct. 1) every year, since some financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. 
  • Your FAFSA information applies to a single academic year, so you’ll need to submit the form for every year you’re in school and want to receive financial aid.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Student Aid. "FY 2021 Annual Report," Page 14. 

  2. Federal Student Aid. "SAR: Student Aid Report."

  3. National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "NASFAA Deep Dive: Changes to Federal Methodology, Other Student Aid Changes From Spending Bill."

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Pell Grants."

  5. Federal Student Aid. "How Long Will It Take To Fill Out the FAFSA?"

  6. Federal Student Aid. "Dependency Status."

  7. Federal Student Aid. "How To Review and Correct Your FAFSA Application." 

  8. Federal Student Aid. "Eligibility Requirements."

  9. Federal Student Aid. "Filling Out the FAFSA Form."

  10. CollegeBoard. "2022-23 CSS Profile Student Guide."

  11. College Board. "Fee Waivers."