Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which opens by Dec. 31, is one of the most important steps students and their families can take to pay for college. Some states now make completing the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement.
The U.S. Department of Education awarded about $111.6 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds in fiscal year 2022, according to the most recent Federal Student Aid annual report. Those federal funds will assist roughly 9.8 million students in completing their education.
Federal financial aid can be borrowed, earned (through work-study) or given, such as a grant. Here are a few answers to common questions about the FAFSA.
What Is the FAFSA?
“The FAFSA is the application that is required to be used by all schools in awarding federal student aid,” says Brad Barnett, associate vice president for access and enrollment management and director of financial aid at James Madison University in Virginia. “So if you want federal loans, federal grants, federal work-study, you have to do the FAFSA.”
Nearly all students who apply qualify for some form of federal financial aid. “It’s very easy to qualify for aid based on the FAFSA,” Barnett says.
For years, filling out the FAFSA was a confusing, complex process for families.
However, the FAFSA was streamlined for the 2024-2025 award year. Applicants can now skip as many as 26 questions, and some applicants will be able to compete the form in less than 10 minutes, according to the Department of Education.
How to Apply for Financial Aid via the FAFSA
Families can fill out the online FAFSA application using a computer, mobile phone or tablet. The Federal Student Aid website is mobile-responsive, so pages fit the screen size and shape of any device.
Gather Your FAFSA Documents
There’s a list of paperwork needed to complete the FAFSA. Families need their Social Security numbers (if they have them), driver’s license numbers or state IDs, alien registration number (for non-U.S. citizens), tax information, records of untaxed income, current bank statements and investments — if any — along with the list of schools students are interested in attending.
Create an FSA ID
The first step, before filling out the FAFSA, is to create an FSA ID, which serves as an electronic signature. All contributors — a parent, step-parent, spouse or anyone else required to provide information on a student’s form — must create an FSA ID.
Parents and students can find a link to obtain an FSA ID through the Federal Student Aid website. To create a unique ID, applicants need their Social Security number (if they have one), date of birth and name as it appears on official documents.
While a student or parent can immediately use the FSA ID to sign a first-time FAFSA application, other activities, like a FAFSA renewal, cannot be completed until the Social Security Administration validates the information submitted to create the ID, which takes an average of one to three days.
Parents and students need to generate their own specific IDs, since applicants aren’t allowed to create one on someone else’s behalf. Note that parents without a Social Security number can now create an FSA ID.
For students under age 24 who are seeking a certificate or associate or bachelor’s degree, both a student and parent FSA ID are required unless the student is considered independent on the FAFSA.
To be considered independent, the student must be married; a veteran or current member of the armed forces; an orphan; an emancipated minor or in a court-ordered legal guardianship; a homeless youth or one at risk of being homeless; a parent who provides more than half of the financial support for a child or dependent; or have received foster care or been a ward of the court for any period after age 13.
Graduate and professional students are automatically considered independent on the FAFSA.
Enter Student and Parent Information
To apply for financial aid via the FAFSA, families need to input information on their citizenship and marital status, legal residence and Social Security numbers, if applicable.
Student applicants must also list at least one school they plan to apply to or have already applied to, so the school can receive their information. On the online form, students can select up to 20 institutions. After submitting the form, students can still remove or add colleges to their list.
Enter Financial Information
The FAFSA uses tax information from what’s known as the “prior prior year” — verified federal tax returns from two years ago. A family completing the FAFSA for the 2024-2025 academic year will use the 2022 tax return. The use of verified tax returns from the prior prior year reduces the need to use estimates on the form.
While filling out the form, students and parents are required to disclose income and indicate whether they received benefits from federal programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or free or reduced-price school lunch. Child support payments have been moved to the asset section of the form — which only families with an adjusted gross income of $60,000 or higher are required to fill out.
Review and Submit Your FAFSA
To fully complete the FAFSA, students and parents, if applicants are filing as dependents, are required to sign the form — either digitally using their FSA ID or by hand on the paper version.
After submission, the applicant will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR, via email or postal mail. The report includes the applicant’s responses to the form’s questions as well as the Student Aid Index — formerly the expected family contribution, or EFC — if the application is complete. This number is used to determine a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid.
The SAR is a summary of the FAFSA data submitted, so applicants should review it carefully for any mistakes, according to Pam Andrews, founder of Delaware-based College Prep Strategy. “Once you submit it, you can always make changes. You have to wait a day or two, but a family can go back in and update their FAFSA.”
Some FAFSA forms are selected by the Department of Education for verification. Selected students are asked to provide proof of their information through the verification process.
The online FAFSA is typically processed by the Department of Education within three to five days, and then the information is sent to the list of schools each student provided. The colleges use that to determine financial aid eligibility. However, processing delays are expected when the 2024-2025 form opens in December.
“We’ve been told that schools may not receive the data from the FAFSA until potentially late into January,” says Paul Negrete, executive director for university financial aid services at Rice University in Texas. “So while families should be able to apply for aid beginning December 31, it may be still several weeks before a school receives that data and is able to process it, verify it and create packages. Students and parents should be paying attention to any notices that schools send because there may be some shorter timelines between when we are able to determine a file is complete versus when our priority deadlines are.”
Who Is Eligible to Receive Federal Student Aid?
U.S. citizens, nationals, legal permanent residents and individuals who have an Arrival-Departure Record from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing certain designations (such as refugees) are eligible to apply for federal student aid. Students need to be enrolled in a Title IV-eligible school, meaning one that can receive federal financial aid funds, to receive aid.
The FAFSA asks for information about income and assets. This information is used to calculate the SAI, which determines eligibility for federal student aid. For instance, if the SAI is between negative 1,500 and zero, then the student will most likely qualify for the maximum Pell Grant — a federal award based on financial need.
The number of family members in college is no longer a factor in the financial aid calculation.
Students who aren’t eligible for a federal grant may still qualify for work-study or federal loans, which typically carry lower interest rates than private student loans.
According to National College Attainment Network data, as of June 30, 2023, 53.4% of the high school class of 2023 had completed the FAFSA application. That’s up 1.3% from the prior year.
This “largely reflects a return to pre-pandemic FAFSA completion rates,” says Catherine Brown, senior director of policy and advocacy at NCAN. “This year, candidly, will probably be lower once you consider that the form itself is being released about three months later than it typically is. And college access and high school counselors are working on a significantly compressed timeline to support students who need extra help in getting through the FAFSA.”
What Do I Need to Know About the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?
For the 2024-2025 FAFSA application, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, called IRS DRT, which automatically transfers tax information to the online application, was replaced by the IRS Direct Data Exchange, or DDX.
In this process, federal tax information is shared directly by the IRS with the Department of Education to calculate a student’s SAI. All people contributing information to a FAFSA are required to consent to DDX.
[Read: FAFSA Deadlines You Should Know.]
What Is the Deadline for the FAFSA?
While deadlines vary for each school, the federal due date is June 30 of the following academic year — nearly 18 months after its open date. But schools often establish priority filing dates.
“If you miss a priority filing date, you may miss out on grant money,” Barnett says, especially when it comes to state and institutional aid, since many states and schools award need-based grants using information submitted on the FAFSA. “If you’re interested in four or five schools, then it’s advisable to find out the priority filing date for each one of those schools, and then get the FAFSA in by each one of those filing dates.”
Deadlines for state aid vary, but there are a few that distribute awards first come, first served. Some states may also require families to complete an additional application.
“We would urge students to fill those out as quickly as possible, given the delay,” Brown says. “So the sooner you get your application in, the more likely you are to receive the maximum award that you are entitled to.”
Who Do I Contact if I Need Help With the FAFSA?
Students and families with questions about the FAFSA can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center, known as the FSAIC, which provides support on behalf of the Department of Education. Questions can also be submitted via email or web chat. Another option is to contact a school’s financial aid office.
“The FAFSA will have quite a lot of help text and pop-ups,” says Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. It will say, “‘If you don’t know how to answer this question, click here’ and there’s more details,” she says. “So definitely take advantage of all of that as you are moving through the FAFSA. But if something is not clear or not working, then you can reach out to the FSAIC folks or to the financial aid offices.”
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Update 11/30/23: This story was previous published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.