Steps, Problem Solving & Expert Advice for College Financial Aid
The cost of college continues to rise. In 2018, the average cost to attend a public college reached nearly $18,000, while private college reached over $46,000 per year. Fortunately, the federal student aid program distributes $120 billion in federal grants, loans, and other forms of student aid every year. Students can qualify for federal aid by filling out the FAFSA.
Our FAFSA guide walks through how to fill out the FAFSA, the documents you need to complete the form, and common FAFSA mistakes. This page also includes a FAQ that answers key FAFSA questions.
I am unable to get my parents information to fill out the FAFSA. What should I do?
If your parents refuse to provide information for the FAFSA, you can select the “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)” as an option on the form. This option lets students report a special circumstance or a reason for omitting parental information. While students can still submit the FAFSA, the student aid office cannot calculate an estimated family contribution, which can affect your ability to receive aid.
How long does it usually take to get my financial aid from FAFSA?
After submitting the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that includes your expected family contribution. The SAR goes to your college, which administers financial aid and provides aid offers to students. Federal aid distributions occur twice per year, typically at the beginning of the semester.
Do I need to renew my FAFSA application every year?
Yes, students must submit the FAFSA every year to continue receiving federal aid. The form will list information from the prior year and ask students to provide updated income and tax information.
How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA?
The FAFSA generally takes under one hour to complete. Applicants can speed up the process by organizing their documents and reading up on how to fill out the FAFSA before starting the form.
When can you fill out the FAFSA?
The federal student aid program makes the FAFSA available every year from Oct.1-June 30. Applicants should plan to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1st, since some programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
When is the FAFSA due?
Applicants must submit the FAFSA before June 30th. However, colleges may set an earlier deadline for completing the FAFSA, so make sure to check with your school.
How is the FAFSA calculated?
The financial aid program uses the FAFSA to calculate your cost of school attendance and expected family contribution. The program uses these numbers to determine your financial need and award need-based aid. Applicants can also receive non-need-based aid from the FAFSA.
How are FAFSA funds distributed?
Schools distribute FAFSA funds at least twice a year, depending on the type of aid. Work-study students receive paychecks at least once a month.
What schools can I attend with my FAFSA funds?
To receive federal aid, students must attend a regionally or nationally accredited school. Students can look up schools that can distribute FAFSA aid in the U.S. Department of Education database.
Can I appeal FAFSA for more financial aid?
Yes, students can appeal their financial aid award after submitting the FAFSA. For example, if the applicant loses their job after filing the FAFSA, they can appeal. Other reasons for appealing the FAFSA include an income change, an unforeseen event, like a parent’s death, and high medical or childcare costs.
What can disqualify me from receiving FAFSA aid?
Several factors can disqualify applicants from receiving federal aid, such as certain criminal convictions. Applicants must also be U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a high school diploma or the equivalent. Finally, male applicants must register with the Selective Service to receive federal aid.
What is an FSA ID and how do I get one?
An FSA ID lets students log in to complete the FAFSA online. It also lets students sign their application. Applicants can create an FSA ID on the federal student aid website.
What is the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool lets applicants automatically transfer tax data to their FAFSA form. The tool helps applicants make sure they use accurate tax information for themselves and their parents.
Documents Required for Completing the FAFSA
- Driver’s license number, if applicable
- Alien registration number for applicants who are not U.S. citizens
- Federal tax return information for independent students
- Tax information for parents of dependent applicants
- Tax information for spouses, if married and filing separately
- Documentation of all untaxed income, such as child support and veteran benefits
- Banking information, such as checking and saving account balances
- All proceeds received from investments in stocks, bonds, real estate, business, and farming assets
What Kinds of Aid Does FAFSA Provide?
The federal student aid program provides grants, loans, and work-study funding to students. The amount applicants can receive after filling out the FAFSA varies depending on their financial need, enrollment status, and degree level. For example, only undergraduates qualify for direct subsidized loans, while only graduate students can take out a grad PLUS loan.
In 2018, undergraduates received over $15,000 in financial aid, while graduate students received over $28,000.
The U.S. Department of Education awards grants to qualifying college students. Unlike loans, grants do not require repayment, making them one of the best forms of federal financial aid. As a result, students should prioritize accepting grants before taking out loans.
The federal aid program awards Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, TEACH Grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants. Some grants require proof of financial need, such as the Pell Grant. Others apply to students in specific programs, such as the TEACH grant, which supports undergraduate and graduate students pursuing teaching degrees.
Grant recipients generally do not need to repay the award. However, some grant programs carry service obligations. TEACH grant recipients, for example, must agree to work for four years at a low-income school or in a high-need field after earning their degree. Recipients who do not meet the service requirement must repay the grant as a loan.
The federal student loan program lends money to students to cover college costs. Compared to private loans, federal loans typically offer lower interest rates, more repayment options, and better consolidation options.
The federal aid program offers three types of loans: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, and PLUS loans. Undergraduates who meet financial need requirements can take out direct subsidized loans. The Department of Education subsidizes the loan by paying interest while the borrower attends school and during any grace periods or deferrals. Borrowers should prioritize subsidized loans over unsubsidized loans.
Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students can take out direct unsubsidized loans. With these loans, the borrower must pay interest. Unsubsidized loans do not require proof of financial need.
Parents of undergraduates can take out PLUS loans to cover their child’s college expenses. Graduate and professional students can also take out PLUS loans. Borrowers must complete a credit check to qualify.
The federal work-study program connects eligible students with part-time job opportunities. Work-study students work while in school, earning money to cover their educational expenses.
Full-time and part-time undergraduate, graduate, and professional students qualify for work-study programs. However, students must meet financial need requirements to receive work-study assistance. Students must submit the FAFSA annually to participate in the federal work-study program.
Schools connect qualifying students with on-campus and off-campus work-study jobs. These jobs typically emphasize community service, civic education, and/or work related to the student’s major. Students receive at least minimum wage, with an annual cap on work-study earnings.
Schools administer the federal work-study program. Not all schools participate, so students should check with their financial aid office to learn more.
3 Common Mistakes Made by Families When Filling out the FAFSA
Avoid these three common mistakes that often discount families from receiving good gift aid from colleges.
- Listing retirement investments and annuities as investments. Families are not required to list these as assets. The formula that crunches numbers for the FAFSA does not assess retirement plans and annuities, but if families put in these numbers under investments it’s going to needlessly raise their EFC calculation, and that means less eligibility for aid.
- Listing incorrect social security numbers. If you are off by just one digit on your Social Security number, it negatively impacts the whole FAFSA process.
- Listing the wrong household for students living with divorce-separated parents. Using the incorrect household’s financial data can increase or decrease financial aid immensely. If it’s a 50-50 situation where the student resides with both families, use the custodial parent household information that has the lower wages and assets. If you have a situation where a dependent spends 70 to 80 percent with one parent, obviously you need to use the parent where the student resides. But if it’s 50-50, use the lower one.
Learn more about financial aid with the following valuable guides