What Is FAFSA? Everything You Need to Know About Federal Student Aid

Learn what you need to do to get financial aid for college.

College isn’t getting cheaper. For 2017-2018, the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year public universities are almost $10,000 for in-state students and over $25,000 for out-of-state. At private four-year universities, tuition and fees average nearly $35,000, according to the College Board.

You might not need to pay the full amount, however. Each year, the federal government provides over $120 billion in grants and loans to 13 million students attending college, vocational schools and graduate schools to assist with paying for college. To access the funds, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Learn more before you submit your FAFSA to get financial aid.

Who Is Eligible to Apply for FAFSA?

To qualify for federal aid, you must be either a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen with a Social Security number or Alien Registration Number. You must have a high school diploma or GED certificate, and be enrolled in an eligible program where you are seeking a degree or certificate and making academic progress. You must not have a conviction for possession of illegal drugs while receiving aid. Male students must register with the Selective Service System.

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Who Should Complete the FAFSA?

If you plan to attend a postsecondary school, you should complete the FAFSA to be eligible for federal student aid. The FAFSA is released on Oct. 1 the year before you start school and is available to complete until June 30 the year after. Aid is limited, so complete your FAFSA promptly. Also, some colleges won’t consider you for merit-based scholarships until you complete the FAFSA. Even if you are certain you won’t qualify for need-based aid, you should still complete the FAFSA. College is expensive and every bit of aid helps.

How Does FAFSA Work?

You can complete the FAFSA for free, either on the Department of Education’s website or through a mailed paper application. You will need your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number if you aren’t a U.S. citizen, federal income tax returns, W-2s, bank statements and records of investments, records of any untaxed income and, if you want to sign electronically, a Federal Student Aid ID. If you are a dependent, you need the same information from your parents. After you apply, you can check the application status online and will receive a confirmation of your submission.

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Assets and income are treated based on whether they belong to the parent or to the student. The Expected Family Contribution formulas are complicated and factor in taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits such as unemployment or Social Security. Family size and expected cost of attendance are also factors. Students who meet certain criteria will have an EFC of zero. The college will use this data to calculate your aid package.

Federal Aid Awarded Based on FAFSA

Based on the information you provide, you can qualify for a range of federal aid including grants, student loans and work-study programs. Here’s how each type of aid differs:

  • A grant is money for college you don’t have to repay, as long as you do not drop out. Federal grants include the Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, and Grants Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
  • Loans must be paid back and include the federal Perkins Loan program, Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans. Depending on your financial circumstances, you might qualify for subsidized loans, which generally means the government pays the interest while you are in school.
  • The federal work-study program sets you up with a part-time job while you are in school. The jobs can be with the school, a private nonprofit organization or a public agency. Pay is at least the federal minimum wage.
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FAFSA Deadline

The federal deadline for applying for financial aid is June 30 of the calendar year in which you finish the school year. For example, to receive federal aid for the 2018-2019 school year, you must submit your FAFSA by June 30, 2019. States and schools have additional deadlines for applying for aid, such as institutional and state grants. For example, Kansas requires that you submit your FAFSA by April 1, 2018. Apply as early as you can and check out state-specific FAFSA deadlines to get the most aid possible.


  • How long does the FAFSA take to complete? It could take less than an hour because you can import your tax returns. Make sure you have at least two hours set aside to fill out the FAFSA just in case.
  • What other forms do I have to fill out for financial aid? Colleges might have their own forms, such as the CSS profile, for non-federal aid. Some forms might have associated fees.
  • Do I have to accept all aid? No. Completing the FAFSA does not require you to accept aid.

Help with the FAFSA is available from the U.S. Department of Education, online or by phone, and from certain states that have annual assistance events. If your high school has a guidance office, it might be able to help, too.

Up Next: How to Check Your FAFSA Status

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About the Author

Michael Keenan

Michael Keenan is a writer based in the Kansas City area, specializing in personal finance, taxation, and business topics. He has been writing since 2009 and has been published by Quicken, TurboTax and The Motley Fool.

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