As most college students know, filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is key to making higher education affordable. The FAFSA allows students to qualify for scholarships, grants, and federal student loans, but getting through it can feel harder than organic chemistry.
That’s why it’s a good idea to get started as early as possible. For the 2020-21 FAFSA, that would mean Oct. 1, when applications open.
Whether you’re filling out the FAFSA for the first time or just want a refresher on important info, here’s everything you’ll need to know.
What is the FAFSA?
Since not everyone is eligible for federal student aid, the FAFSA functions as an application for grants, scholarships, and other aid. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and Federal Work Study programs are all awarded as a result of the FAFSA.
Need is based on income, which means most students will need their parents’ financial information in addition to their own to file the FAFSA. The Department of Education laid out exactly how loans are disbursed on its website, but it boils down to this:
- Your cost of attendance (COA) for your school is calculated. This includes tuition, room and board, books, and some other necessary costs
- Your family’s income is used to calculate an expected family contribution (EFC), which determines how much you’ll need to pay
- The EFC is subtracted from the COA, and the resulting number is the maximum amount you’re eligible to receive in federal loans
As an example, let’s say your cost of attendance is $25,000 and your expected family contribution is $20,000. That means you can get up to $5,000 in federal aid. The COA should be relatively simple to figure out based on costs listed online, but the EFC is a bit more complicated, so the Department of Education has a longer guide on how it’s calculated.
Am I Eligible to Receive Federal Aid?
To be eligible to receive federal aid, you must:
- Be a U.S. citizen with a valid social security number
- Have a high school diploma or GED
- Be enrolled in a degree program
- Maintain satisfactory academic progress
All that is to say most students are eligible for financial aid.
Should I File the FAFSA? Why?
While the FAFSA is a great resource that helps make college more affordable, millions of students do not file every year. Some are confident they can pay for college without federal aid, and others are concerned about taking on debt.
But unfortunately, one study showed that nearly a quarter of students who chose not to file the FAFSA said that they didn’t have enough information about how to complete it.
Billions of dollars in grants are left on the table every year because students do not file the FAFSA. Whatever your reason may be, it’s almost always worth filing to see if you qualify for any aid. Even if you think your family doesn’t need the assistance, it’s still worth finding out what you may qualify for. The FAFSA is free to file so there’s no downside!
How Do I File a FAFSA?
You can file online at fafsa.gov, and the online portal is easy to navigate. Before you start filing the FAFSA, you’ll need some information on hand:
- Your social security number
- A Federal Student Aid ID
- Your driver’s license number (if you have a license)
- Your 2018 tax records
- Records of all other assets and income
As long as you have everything you need, filing the FAFSA is a pretty straightforward process. If you’re applying as an incoming freshman, you’ll need to list every school you’re considering attending to send your information there. If you’re already in college, simply choose your school.
You’ll need to answer some questions on your demographic and dependency information, as well as electronically sign your FAFSA before it’s officially complete.
As of last year, you can even file the FAFSA from your phone. Overall, the FAFSA is a bit time consuming, but well worth the work. Any loans you receive can help lighten some of the financial stresses of college.
Don’t wait to get out of debt! Read this: A Complete, Step-By-Step Guide to Get Out of Debt.