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What is the FAFSA?

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, helps potential and current college students get scholarships, grants, work-study programs and federal student loans. There are no income limits to apply.

Many state and private colleges use the FAFSA to determine your financial aid eligibility, and you must submit a FAFSA every year to receive federal financial aid.

Here is our complete FAFSA guide, including how to apply.

Types of aid available through FAFSA

While there are no overall FAFSA income limits, your family’s specific financial situation determines the size of the aid package you can expect to receive.

But even if you’re worried your parents make too much for need-based aid, it’s still worth submitting the FAFSA to see if you can get non-need-based aid.

Below are the types of federal financial aid you can obtain via the FAFSA:

How much can you receive in Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans?Ultimately, your school determines your federal financial aid package based on your Expected Family Contribution (soon to be renamed Student Aid Index) and the cost of attendance.

Additionally, the Department of Education sets the following aggregate federal student loan limits:

  • Dependent undergraduate students: $31,000 in subsidized and unsubsidized loans (no more than $23,000 in subsidized loans).
  • Independent undergraduate students: $57,500 in subsidized and unsubsidized loans (no more than $23,000 in subsidized loans). Dependent undergraduates whose parents are denied a parent PLUS loan also qualify for this maximum.
  • Graduate and professional students: $138,500 in unsubsidized loans. This limit includes all federal loans received for undergraduate studies.

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile

Although the FAFSA is the main financial aid application form for most types of public funding, another form worth completing is the CSS Profile. Administered by the College Board, the CSS Profile helps colleges and private scholarship programs calculate a student’s level of financial need.

Here are the key differences and similarities between the FAFSA and CSS Profile.

CostFree for everyone$25 for the initial application, then $16 for each additional school year. Fees are waived if your family makes less than $100,000 per year.
Application renewalAnnuallyAnnually
Schools acceptedAny school that grants federal financial aidOver 400 colleges, universities and private scholarship programs
Type of aidFederal financial aid (sometimes state and institutional aid)Need-based, non-federal financial aid
AdministratorThe U.S. Department of EducationThe College Board
How to applyOnline or by mailOnline

Keep in mind that your college may require you to complete both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. In addition, many schools have their own scholarship or aid applications. Contact your school’s financial aid department to ensure you complete everything on time — the sooner you get started, the better.

How to Complete the FAFSA

Head over to the Department of Education website to start your FAFSA application. You’ll need the following to complete the process:

  • Your Social Security number or Alien Registration number (USCIS number)
  • Financial account statements
  • Federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned

You can save time by uploading your and your parents’ tax documents via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool in the FAFSA form.

While you don’t need a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID to fill out the FAFSA, creating one is a good idea. Having an FSA ID makes it easier to find your application once started, allowing you to quickly pull up your student aid reports and track your student loan servicers.

Note that you can use the Federal Student Aid Estimator to estimate your potential financial aid before starting to see where you stand.

Special cases affecting federal financial aid eligibility

Criminal convictionIncarceration would restrict access to most federal financial aid
DisabilityIn addition to typical federal grants, you can also apply for medical-based financial aid
Non-citizenIf you have a Permanent Resident card (also known as a “green card”), you could still qualify for aid as a FAFSA-eligible non-citizen
Parent killed in military actionBeyond a Pell Grant, you could also qualify for an Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

What is the deadline for the FAFSA?FAFSA applications open annually on Oct. 1 for the following school year. Although the official FAFSA deadline is June 30 of the following year, it’s best to apply early since money is generally distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The sooner you apply, the better your chances of getting the help you need for school. Some schools also impose their own deadlines for financial aid, so mark your calendar to ensure you don’t miss an important deadline.

What to do once you’ve submitted the FAFSA

After submitting your FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report outlining your application and eligibility, usually within a few days to three weeks. If you see any errors on your Student Aid Report, you’ll need to update your FAFSA online.

The FAFSA offers tools to simplify the filing process and prevent errors. If you’ve filed a FAFSA in the past, you can automatically input the previous FAFSA information into your current application. Plus, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can automatically fill your FAFSA with relevant tax information.

Your college will review your FAFSA and other enrollment materials. The financial aid award letter often comes around the same time as an admissions letter, though this can vary by school. The award letter outlines your aid package, including federal student aid, institutional aid and loans.

Follow the instructions in the letter to accept and claim your financial aid. You must respond by the start of the term to avoid losing your financial aid award.

Appealing your aid award

If you feel you weren’t given enough aid based on your financial situation, you have the option to appeal your financial aid award.

If you go this route, your first step should be to call your school’s financial aid office and ask about the specifics of its appeal process. You’ll likely need to write a letter explaining the reasons behind your request for an appeal, such as a change in employment or financial circumstances. Include supporting documentation, such as bank statements or copies of your award letters from other schools.

Appeals are considered on a case-by-case situation, and of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll receive more aid. For more details, see our guide to appealing your financial aid award letter.

Additional ways to pay for college

If your educational costs exceed the federal limits, you can consider private student loans to help cover remaining expenses. They often come with flexible interest rates and repayment terms.

However, be sure to do your research before you sign the dotted line. Private student loans don’t offer the same government protections as federal student loans, such as income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.

Here are some other ways to pay for college:


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