Frequently asked questions about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Calendar Icon Updated January 17, 2019
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If you have children in high school who are planning on going to college, then you’ve probably heard something about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) already. There is a lot of information out there about the FAFSA, but sometimes, too much information can make the entire subject more daunting than it needs to be. The best way to approach the subject of federal financial aid is to take small steps going forward.

As you learn more about the FAFSA and about which circumstances apply to you, it will be easier to drill down to exactly the information you need to secure funds for your children’s college education.

Here are some commonly asked questions to get you started.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is a form that can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid.It is a standardized document that is used by the vast majority of universities and colleges in the United States and is a key component used to help determine how much and what kind of financial aid may be available to students.

What is the timeframe for filing the FAFSA?

Because financial aid can be highly complex and because there are millions of students who request financial aid each year, the start of the FAFSA process actually begins on October 1 of the preceding school year. The October 1 start date is new for 2017 and was moved from January 1 in previous years to more closely align the timing of the financial aid process with the college application process. Because a certain amount of financial aid is provided on first-come, first-served basis, students and families are encouraged to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.

How do I actually file my FAFSA?

The FAFSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Education and there are three ways that a FAFSA can be prepared and filed.

  • Online
  • By telephone at 1-800-433-3243
  • By hard copy paper

Students who are not comfortable filing the FAFSA on their own do have the option of working with authorized fee-based FAFSA preparation services. These fee-based services must inform students that filing the FAFSA is free if they choose to do it on their own, and they must be transparent about the fees they charge and that they are not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education in any way.

What information will I need to complete my FAFSA?

Filling out the FAFSA will require some pre-planning on your part. There are several specific pieces of information you will need to complete the form:

  • A FAFSA ID. You can create one online the first time you start the FAFSA process. If you are a dependent student, at least one of your parents will also need to complete and create a FAFSA ID as well.
  • Your Social Security Number and driver’s license, or an alien registration card if you are not a U.S. citizen.
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns. The U.S. Department of Education has joined with the Internal Revenue Service to create the IRS Data Retrieval Tool which allows you to electronically access your tax records and transfer them in to your FAFSA application. You will also need other records of any money that you earned.
  • If you are a dependent student, you will also need your parents income tax returns, W-2 forms and 1040 forms.If you or your parents have not completed your taxes yet, you can estimate your income on the FAFSA and then go back and update the information after you have filed your taxes.
  • Documentation for any nontaxable income such as welfare payments, Social Security income, veteran’s benefits, or other allowances, if applicable.
  • Other financial information such as grants, fellowships, or scholarship aid or income derived from work-study or assistantships. You should also provide information on child support, veterans non-education benefits or other money received or paid on your behalf.
  • Bank and brokerage statements, including all investments.
  • Records and information related to any unusual family situations or circumstances that have changed in the past year. This could include divorces, separations, unusually high medical or dental expenses or dependent care expenses, deaths, job loss or special needs costs for a child or elderly parent.
  • Title IV Institution Codes for each school you are applying to. Each college in the United States has a unique code and this is used to send your FAFSA information to the schools you are applying to, alerting them that you may become a student and that you are interesting in receiving financial aid. You can contact the school’s financial aid office to retrieve the code, or you can use the retrieval tool found here. You can list up to 10 schools on your FAFSA at a time. If you want to apply to more than 10 colleges and want them to receive your FAFSA, it’s best to call the Federal Student Aid Information Center and have them add the colleges for you.

Are there requirements I must meet to apply for federal financial aid?

Yes. A student must meet all of the following criteria to be considered eligible for federal financial aid:

  • Has a valid Social Security number
  • Is a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or is an eligible non-citizen
  • Has a high school diploma or is currently in the final year of high school, working on completing the requirements for a high school diploma or GED
  • Students must be enrolled at least half-time and be working toward a degree or combined degree/certificate. Students enrolled in a certificate-only program are not eligible for federal aid, including loans.
  • If the student is a male between 18 and 25 years old, that they have registered for the Selective Service System, if they are required to do so. Females are excluded from this requirement. Students can actually register for Selective Service as part of the FAFSA process.
  • If currently enrolled in high school or college classes, that they are maintaining Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), meaning that they are keeping their GPA up and have not been academically disqualified.
  • Have not been found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while any previous federal financial aid was being received
  • Are able to truthfully sign the FAFSA certification statement that federal student aid will only be used for education purposes and that they are not in default of a federal student loan and do not owe money on a federal student grant.

What kinds of financial aid will the FAFSA help me secure at the federal level?

There are many kinds of federal financial aid available to students. The four most common are:

Students are also highly encouraged to seek out scholarships that do not need to be repaid and to consider taking out private loans if they do not receive adequate federal financial aid to fund their college education.

How much federal financial aid should I expect to receive?

The amount of financial aid you can expect to receive will depend on something called your Expected Family Contribution, as well as your year in school, your enrollment status and the Cost of Attendance (COA) for the school you will attend.

How is the Cost of Attendance determined?

The financial aid office at the school you will be attending will determine how much aid you will be eligible to receive.They will start by deciding exactly what your Cost of Attendance at that school will be. Generally this is done on an annual basis, meaning they will calculate your COA to show the total cost for the entire year (i.e. fall semester plus spring semester). The financial aid office will estimate the following expenses to come up with a COA:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board on campus, or living expenses for students who choose not to live on campus
  • Books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and other related miscellaneous expenses, including the cost of a personal computer
  • Allowances for child or dependent care, if applicable
  • Costs related to a disability, if applicable
  • Reasonable costs for study abroad programs, if applicable

What happens after the Cost of Attendance is determined?

Once your expenses have been calculated, the financial aid office will then use the information on the FAFSA to come up with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a dollar amount that is calculated according to a formula established by law. The FAFSA looks at a family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits and other sources of income, as well as a student’s family size and the number of family members who will be attending college during the coming year. You can go here to see exactly how the EFC formula is applied for the 2017-18 school year.

To calculate the amount of financial aid you may need, the financial aid office will take the COA and subtract the EFC to give you a dollar amount of financial aid need. This need based-aid is the financial aid you can receive if you have financial need and meet all the other eligibility criteria. You can’t receive more need-based aid than the amount of your calculated financial need.

Can I still get additional financial aid over and above what my need-based financial aid is?

Yes. There are several other sources of financial aid you can attempt to secure. These can include private scholarships, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Plus Loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education Grants, to name a few. Receiving as much financial aid as possible is a multi-step process that requires looking into several different options and doing the hard work of contacting financial aid outlets, filling out grant and scholarship applications and a host of other activities that will help defer or reduce the cost of a college education.

If I don’t agree with the outcome of my FAFSA COA or EFC, can I appeal my federal financial aid package?

You can file an appeal but first you’ll need to see if you meet the Special Circumstances or Unusual Circumstances criteria to warrant a FAFSA appeal. If you do, you’ll need to submit a formal appeal and letter explaining the appeal.The process for appealing a FAFSA package is known as a special circumstances review or professional judgment review. These terms are often used interchangeably.

Your financial aid administrator has the authority to make changes and adjustments to the data elements of the FAFSA application or to COA when Special Circumstances are the reason for appeal. However, all decisions made by the financial aid office are final. No one can override the decision or changes made to your FAFSA data.

What are the specific Special Circumstances or Unusual Circumstances that may impact my financial aid appeal?

Special Circumstances include the following:

  • The family is concerned that it will not be able to meet its required contribution
  • The previous year’s income was affected by a significant one-time event that aren’t typical of the family’s ability to meet its required contribution
  • There are high unreimbursed medical/dental expenses not covered by the individual’s insurance
  • There are high dependent-care costs related to a special needs individual or elderly grandparent
  • A parent loses a job or experiences a salary reduction
  • A parent’s income varies annually due to the volatility of their job
  • A member of the family is seriously ill
  • A parent dies, is incarcerated, becomes disabled, or is institutionalized
  • Social Security benefits or child support ceases when the child reaches the age of majority
  • The family suffers a natural or financial disaster

While some of these circumstances are really specific, others have more wiggle room.

If that doesn’t quite fit your needs as you build your appeal, take a look at the following Unusual Circumstances, which include:

  • There are PFAs (Protection from Abuse orders) against the student’s parents or guardians
  • Both of the student’s parents are institutionalized or incarcerated
  • The student is completely estranged from their family
  • The student has been abandoned by their parents or guardians and is unable to locate them
  • The student’s parents are divorced, the custodial parent dies, and the student has no contact with or support from the non-custodial parent for an extended period

If you meet any of the above Unusual Circumstances, you have grounds for an appeal.

Bret Colson

For more than a decade, he managed the city government public information and marketing activities for Anaheim, California, including an active role in the build-out of more than $5 billion in community and infrastructure improvements.  He also spent several years managing the public information function for an Orange County, California special district that served the needs of more than 1.6 million people, and has consulted for several local governments and private sector companies throughout the course of his career.

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