Whether you’re a senior in high school applying for college or you’re an adult returning to further your undergraduate or graduate level academic career, you’ve no doubt heard of FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a mandatory step (and, in most cases, the very first step) in getting financial aid of any kind for your college tuition and fees.

All that said, though you’ve certainly heard of FAFSA, you may not know a whole lot about this application or why you should fill it out. Let’s take a moment to go over the what, why, and how of filling out a FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

First of all, what exactly is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid? This is the application that you submit to the government to determine how much and what kind of federal financial aid you qualify for, based on your income, your household income, the number of people in your household currently enrolled in colleges or universities, and some other financial information.

You can fill out a FAFSA at FAFSA.ed.gov and submit it online, or you may request a paper copy by calling 1-800-4-FED or 319-337-5665, and you may then mail your application instead of completing and submitting it online. If you are hearing impaired, you may contact the office’s text telephone line at 1-800-730-8913.

Why Should You Fill Out a FAFSA?

Some students question whether or not they should fill out a FAFSA because they believe their parents make too much money to qualify, but this is almost always not true. Did you know that the federal government distributes an estimated $150 billion in grants, student loans, and work-study funds every year?

Almost all students who apply for federal financial aid qualify for at least some assistance. The application is free, and you may even qualify for some types of financial aid that you’ll never have to pay back.

What Kind of Aid Can You Qualify For?

While a lot of the money from federal financial aid comes in the form of low-interest loans that you’ll have to pay back after you graduate, you might be surprised at some of the other opportunities open to you through your FAFSA.

First of all, Pell grants are awarded strictly based on the financial information you provide in your FAFSA. You do not have to do anything else to apply and/or qualify for this need-based grant, which you’ll never have to pay back. Similarly, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is also awarded based on the information in your FAFSA.

Even if you do not qualify for a federal grant, you may still qualify for student loans at a much lower interest rate than you could otherwise find through private lenders or banks. Furthermore, once the Department of Education has received your FAFSA and determined how much aid you qualify for, they will then forward it to the school(s) you’re applying to.

Depending on a number of factors, your school may then determine that you fulfill the requirements for more financial aid through the institution. And, if you are not able to qualify for enough funding to cover your education, you can then meet with an advisor in the financial aid office at your school to come up with a plan. They may recommend one or a few lenders that work with students, or they may have suggestions for scholarships that you can apply for to supplement your college fund.

Who Can Apply for Federal Financial Aid?

Though there is no financial requirement to apply for federal student aid, there are a few other simple requirements. To fill out a FAFSA, you must:

  • Be a US citizen or an eligible non-citizen living in the United States.
  • Have a high school diploma or GED.
  • (If male, aged 18-25) Be registered for United States Selective Services.
  • Have a valid Social Security Number.
  • Not be in default on any federal student grants or loans.
  • Maintain minimum satisfactory academic progress.
  • Not have any convictions for sale or possession of illegal drugs.

If you fit these requirements, then you are eligible to apply for federal student aid, and you will mostly likely qualify to receive some financial assistance with your education.

How Do I Know How Much Money I’ll Get?

After you submit your FAFSA, keep an eye on your inbox and/or your mailbox. You should be receiving a Student Aid Report (SAR) that will detail your financial aid for you and give you a good idea of how much money you can expect and how much you will still need to cover through other loans or scholarships.

Once you’ve chosen a school and begun attendance, you will have to renew your FAFSA each year to continue to be eligible for financial aid. This is a simple process and can be done completely online. Renewing includes some tax and income information from the previous year but is not nearly as in-depth or rigorous as filling out your FAFSA the first time.

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