What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the application for U.S. government financial aid for college, including Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), National SMART Grants, TEACH Grants, and more. The FAFSA is your first and most important step to getting the money you need to help you pay for college.

Why should I do a FAFSA?

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education provides over $100 billion in new education grants, student loans, and work-study stipends to more than 14 million college and career school students. Filing a FAFSA gives you access to a number of these need-based grants (such as the Pell) and subsidized student loans.

Federal student aid also includes unsubsidized student loans, which are not income-restricted. That is, even if your income is too high to qualify you for a subsidized loan, you may still be able to get an unsubsidized student loan, which often has a lower interest rate than those offered by private lenders.

A survey done by the National Postsecondary Student Aid revealed that almost half the students eligible for federal student aid in 2007-2008 did not even apply. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is: that’s a lot of money left on the table.

FAFSA Quick Facts

  • The FAFSA’s purpose is to determine how much money you and your family can contribute to paying for your college education. This is called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The school(s) you apply to will consider your EFC together with their Cost of Attendance to determine how much financial aid they can offer you.
  • Since most states, colleges, and private sponsors of need-based scholarships want you to apply for federal financial aid first, the FAFSA also helps make you eligible for thousands of non-federal grants and scholarships.
  • You don’t need to be accepted at a school before you can submit your FAFSA. You only need to list which schools you have applied to.
  • If the school or program you want to enroll in is online, you should still fill out a FAFSA. Federal financial aid can be used for online schools and programs as long as they are accredited by a recognized national or regional accrediting agency and meet other certain criteria.
  • The new and improved Online FAFSA, FAFSA-on-the-Web, has been shortened and streamlined for 2010. For example, it will allow you to skip sections that don’t apply to you.
  • Once you save your Online FAFSA, you have 45 days to add to it and make final changes to it.
  • If you qualify for a Pell Grant, you’ll get it automatically. The FAFSA’s questions will help you determine if you qualify for other federal grants.
  • You must fill out a FAFSA every year you’re in school, but if you apply online, you can re-use your FAFSA-on-the-Web P.I.N (Personal Identification Number) each year you apply for federal financial aid.
  • A major factor in the FAFSA is the student’s dependency status. Being a “Dependent” for federal financial aid is NOT the same thing as being a dependent on tax returns. Even if you no longer live with your parents, or are not claimed by them as a dependent on their taxes, you may still be defined as a dependent according to FAFSA criteria. See Dependent vs. Independent Student on the FAFSA.

2 FAFSAs seem to be available at the same time—which one should I fill out?

Each FAFSA application period runs from January 1st of any given year to June 30th of the following year. This 18-month application period allows for financial aid coverage of the traditional academic year (September to May) and a short summer school session at either end. But it also means there are times when 2 FAFSAs are available at the same time, one for an academic year that’s half-over and one for an academic year that doesn’t start until July 1st.

For example, as of January 2010:

  • If the education program you want to enroll in starts between January 1st and June 30th, 2010, fill out the 2009-2010 FAFSA.
  • If the education program you want to enroll in starts between July 1st, 2010 and June 30th, 2011, fill out the 2010-2011 FAFSA.

When is the FAFSA deadline?

In any given 18-month application period, you can submit your FAFSA any time after January 1st, but the longer you wait, the less money there may be.

Also, many state and school financial aid deadlines are in February and March, so most financial aid experts urge students to file their FAFSA in January. Since this is much earlier than most people do their taxes, which are needed for the FAFSA, this timing mismatch is a real flaw in the financial aid system. No one has figured out how to fix it yet, so in order to be eligible for state scholarships, you may need to file your FAFSA before you file your income tax return. (In this case, you provide estimates of your taxes, then update your FAFSA with corrected numbers later, if necessary.)

It’s important to know your school’s deadline for FAFSA applications since that date is often firm.

How do I fill out the FAFSA?

You can find a detailed description of how to prepare for the FAFSA and what information the FAFSA will ask you for, along with tips from FAFSA experts, in the EducationGrant blog post, The Key to Filling Out the FAFSA in 3 Steps.

You can also download a FAFSA tip sheet from the federal student aid web site.