FAFSA! It sounds like it could be a lively Latin dance, but the FAFSA is actually your best route to getting financial aid for college.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid—commonly known as the FAFSA — is required to determine which federal grants, work-study, and loan programs a student is eligible for, and is used by colleges for their own financial aid programs. Prospective and current college students, or often their parents, fill out the FAFSA form each year to apply for aid for the following academic year.
How federal aid determination works
Your college or school determines whether you have financial need for aid by establishing your cost of attendance for the year (including tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, and other costs), then subtracting your expected family contribution—which takes into account your family’s income, assets, family size, and number of family members in college.
There are several different types of financial aid. Federal programs that award student aid based on need include the Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, loans, and work study. While grants are essentially “free money”, loans must be repaid. Work study qualifies you for a paid on-campus job, though you may still need to apply to the school for a particular position.
State governments also offer financial aid with particular eligibility criteria, often reserving grants for state residents who study at in-state institutions. Learn about your state’s programs by contacting your relevant state agency.
Scholarships – another aid option
Students can also apply for scholarships, which are considered gifts that do not need to be repaid. They are offered by colleges for their own students, by companies, communities, professional organizations, nonprofits, and more. While schools typically use the FAFSA to determine scholarship amounts for students, other scholarships have their own application forms and process. You can research scholarships you might be eligible for on CareerOneStop’s free Scholarship Finder.
Who is eligible to apply for federal aid?
There are some different rules for students with special circumstances along with greater detail on requirements explained on the federal student aid website, but for most students, you must meet these eligibility requirements:
- demonstrate financial need
- be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
- have a valid Social Security number
- be registered with Selective Service, if you’re a male between ages 18 and 25
- be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
- maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school
- not be in default on a federal student loan
- have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent
How hard is it to complete the FAFSA?
In the past, the FAFSA was only available on paper, and had a reputation for being very long, tedious, and difficult to interpret. No more! It’s entirely online, provides hints and definitions of terms, and may allow you to import your tax form directly—saving lots of data entry time. You can even take a practice run at the FAFSA by reviewing the worksheet that takes you through every question.
You can also start the application and save your work if you need to track down a document, or find other answers. To complete the 2019-20 FAFSA form, you’ll need your 2017 tax and income information, financial assets, and social security number and if you are still a dependent, you’ll need your parents’ information too.
Each college you apply to may have its own deadline for filing the FAFSA, but there are also state deadlines to meet.
So if you’re applying to college and hope to qualify for financial aid, there’s no reason to hesitate. Gather your documents, turn on some music, and fill out your FAFSA!