A college education is often one of the biggest purchases a person can make. Many students and families who can’t rely on income and savings alone need assistance to cover the hefty price tag, which can be as high as tens of thousands of dollars per semester. In fact, approximately 85% of college students received some form of financial aid during the 2019-2020 school year.
This is where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, comes in. The FAFSA is a form that students need to fill out in order to receive financial aid for college.
When you file the FAFSA, the federal government evaluates your financial situation to determine the type(s) and amount of federal aid— grants, loans, and work-study—you can receive. Your information is also shared with the colleges you’re applying to so they can review your eligibility for institutional aid.
Submitting the FAFSA is the first step—and a crucial one—in your financial aid journey, so let’s dive into what you can expect while filling out the form.
Whose information does the FAFSA need?
This is determined by whether you’re a dependent or independent student. If you’re a dependent—which is the case for most students under the age of 24—the FAFSA needs financial information from you and your parent(s)/guardian(s).
If you’re over the age of 24 or if there are extenuating circumstances (being a ward of the state, legally emancipated, married or having a dependent of your own, for example) you can file as an independent student. This means that only your income, and your spouse’s if applicable, will be considered when reviewing your eligibility.
It’s also important to note that having a job or a family that’s unwilling to contribute to your education isn’t enough to make you an independent student.
What kind of information does the FAFSA ask for?
The FAFSA asks for your citizenship status, parents/guardians’ citizenship status, marital status, residency information, household size, and income details. For income, the FAFSA uses tax forms from two years prior; so if you’re applying for the upcoming 2023-2024 academic year, you’ll be asked to provide tax information from 2021.
While filling out the form, you’ll have the option to use the “IRS Data Retrieval tool” to transfer tax information from the IRS directly into the FAFSA. This automatically answers a majority of the income questions in the application. Considering that there are 180 questions on the FAFSA, this can save you a lot of time!
Lastly, the FAFSA asks you to add the colleges you’re applying to so they can also receive your information. Once the schools get your details, they’ll put together your financial aid package. (By the way, you can still add colleges after you submit your FAFSA; you’re only required to list at least one college while completing the form.)
How do I complete the FAFSA?
To start, you and your parent/guardian need to create FSA IDs. (If your parent has a federal student loan or received federal financial aid when attending school, they may already have one.)
We recommend using a personal email address that you’ll always have access to for your FSA ID, rather than a school-affiliated email, when creating your account. Since the FAFSA needs to be refiled every school year and your account includes federal student loan information, using a personal email helps ensure you can easily access everything.
While the FAFSA window runs from October 1st through June of the following year, you should apply as early as possible. Many institutional and state programs have internal deadlines for financial aid forms so waiting too long could impact your eligibility. Completing the FAFSA early puts you in a position to be considered for a variety of programs, and it gives you more time to compare the different financial aid packages schools offer—which will be detailed in your award letter—before ultimately deciding where to enroll.