Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which opens Oct. 1, is one of the most important steps students and their families can take to pay for college. In recent years, some states have even made completing the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement.
The U.S. Department of Education awarded about $112 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds in fiscal year 2021, according to the most recent Federal Student Aid annual report. Those federal funds will assist roughly 10.1 million students in completing their education.
Federal financial aid can be given, such as a grant; borrowed; or earned through work experience. 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.
But filling out the FAFSA can be a confusing, complex process for families. The paper version of the FAFSA has more than 100 questions — that’s nearly three times as long as the standard federal income tax form. The online FAFSA, however, uses skip-logic technology to present applicants with relevant questions.
The amount of time it takes to complete the FAFSA can vary. Completion time is typically longer for dependent students, because they must provide both their own information and their parents’ information. It also can take longer to complete the FAFSA the first time, compared with subsequent submissions as students progress through college.
According to the Department of Education, for 2022-2023 FAFSA forms submitted and processed between Oct. 1 and Nov. 26, 2021, it took dependent students less than 54 minutes on average to complete a new form and 35 minutes to complete a renewal; the average completion time among independent students was less than 21 minutes for a new form and 17 minutes for a renewal form.
How to Apply for Financial Aid Via the FAFSA
Students 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.
Alternatively, the paper version, known as the PDF FAFSA, can be printed and filled out manually or filled in on the screen prior to printing and mailing.
The mobile app version of the FAFSA launched in 2018, but was retired on June 30, 2022 due to low usage. According to a press release from the Department of Education, “(C)ustomers have demonstrated that they prefer to go to StudentAid.gov on a mobile device rather than use the myStudentAid mobile app.”
Gather Your FAFSA Documents
There’s a list of paperwork needed to complete the FAFSA. Families need their Social Security numbers, 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. Parents and students can find a link to obtain an FSA ID through the Federal Student Aid website. To create a unique ID, applicants will need their Social Security number, date of birth and their name as it appears on official documents.
The FSA ID is required in order to sign the FAFSA online. 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. A parent who does not have a Social Security number cannot create an FSA ID. On the online FAFSA form, a student can enter all zeros where it asks for the parent’s Social Security number, and then select the option to print a signature page at the end of the application.
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 on the form, the student must be married or separated, but not divorced; 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 considered independent on the FAFSA.
Enter Student and Parent Information
To apply for financial aid via the FAFSA, students need to input information on their citizenship and marital status, legal residence, Social Security number and the number of people within their household. Parents will need to submit the same information.
Applicants must also list at least one school they plan to apply to or already applied to, so the school can receive their information. On the online form, students can select up to 10 institutions, while the PDF version accommodates up to four. After submitting the form, students can still remove or add colleges to their list.
In an effort to streamline the application process and increase access to federal aid, small changes were made for the 2023-2024 award year as part of the phased implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was passed by Congress on Dec. 27, 2020. These include the removal of the drug conviction and Selective Service questions — which previously affected students’ federal financial aid eligibility.
Enter Your Financial Information
The FAFSA uses tax information from what’s known as the “prior prior year” — verified tax returns from two years ago. A family completing the FAFSA for the 2023-2024 academic year, for instance, will use the 2021 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 child support payments as well as indicate whether they received federal program benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and free or reduced-price school lunch.
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. The report includes the applicant’s responses to the form’s questions as well as 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 Department of Education sends the report via email or postal mail.
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.
“Many people get selected for verification completely randomly, so it doesn’t mean you’ve filled out your FAFSA wrong or you are going to get in trouble,” says Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “So don’t panic. Just follow instructions and ask questions if you don’t understand verification.”
The online FAFSA is 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.
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, including refugees, are eligible to apply for federal student aid. Students need to be enrolled in a Title IV-eligible program, meaning one that can receive federal financial aid funds, to qualify.
The FAFSA asks for information about income, assets and demographic factors, such as household size and number of children enrolled in college at the same time. This information is used to calculate the expected family contribution, which determines eligibility for federal student aid. For instance, if the EFC is zero, then the student will most likely qualify for the maximum Pell Grant — a federal award based on financial need.
Families that earn $29,000 or less annually are calculated as an automatic zero for the EFC in the 2023-2024 award year.
But even families with higher incomes qualify for some type of aid. “There is no explicit income cutoff. And different types of aid have different awarding criteria,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”
Students who aren’t eligible for a federal grant, for instance, may still qualify for work-study or federal loans, which typically carry lower interest rates than private education loans.
According to Sallie Mae’s 2022 survey, How America Pays for College, 70% of families with undergraduate students submitted the 2021-2022 FAFSA application. In many cases, the families who did not apply believed they would not qualify for federal financial aid. Others missed the deadline or felt the application was too complicated.
“The good news is FAFSA completion rates are holding steady,” Rick Castellano, a Sallie Mae spokesperson, wrote in an email. “But ideally, we’d like to see those numbers even higher.”
What Do I Need to Know About the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?
Students and their families can save time with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, called IRS DRT, which automatically transfers tax information to the online application.
To use the tool, income tax returns from the prior prior year need to have been filed electronically at least three weeks prior to completing the FAFSA. If the tax returns were filed via mail, then applicants need to allow at least 11 weeks before using the tool.
Under the financial information section of the FAFSA, an applicant can click “Link to IRS” to prefill the form with the prior prior tax year details. When using the tool, the applicant will be transferred to the IRS website. After the information transfers, the site will direct the user back to the FAFSA application.
“Whatever you submit to the federal government for tax returns is going to prepopulate on the form,” Andrews says.
[Read: FAFSA Deadlines You Should Know.]
What Is the Deadline for the FAFSA?
The FAFSA is available on Oct. 1. That’s the first day an applicant can complete the form for the upcoming academic year. While deadlines vary for each school, the federal due date is June 30. But schools often establish priority filing dates, which can be as early as Dec. 1. The 2023-2024 FAFSA, for example, opens Oct. 1, 2022, and closes June 30, 2024.
“If you miss a priority filing date, you may miss out on grant money,” Barnett says, especially when it comes to institutional aid since many schools award their 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.”
Andrews says there are three deadlines to observe. “I find the school deadlines are typically the earliest deadline. Then there’s maybe state deadlines that drive state grants and some state scholarships, so you need to know that deadline. And then there’s the hard-fast deadline, the June 30th deadline when the FAFSA closes.”
Deadlines for state aid vary, but there are a few — like Alaska, Indiana and South Carolina — that distribute awards on a first-come, first-served basis.
“If your child is in one of those states, it really pays to file the FAFSA sooner,” says Kantrowitz, who advises filing the FAFSA close to the Oct. 1 release date.
How Has the Coronavirus Pandemic Affected the FAFSA?
Students and families who have recently experienced a change in financial situation not reflected in the information they provided on the FAFSA, possibly due to job loss or medical bills, can consider filing an appeal. Experts also urge students to reach out and ask colleges to make adjustments.
“The Department of Education has issued some guidance that says schools can use professional judgment to adjust the family’s income if they experienced a job loss because of the pandemic, or for any reason, really,” says Kathy Ruby, principal of financial aid optimization at EAB, an education firm that provides research, technology and advisory services. “Colleges are standing ready to make adjustments when a family needs it, and that’s pretty important during these times because there is a delayed effect of the pandemic.”
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.
“There are times when it is busy, but eventually you will get through to an operator who can provide assistance, whether it’s technical assistance with your ID, the form or if it’s a question on a question,” Andrews says. “They understand all the questions on the form.”
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Update 09/27/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.