Seeking financial aid? What you need to know about the FAFSA
Nearly every U.S. college and university uses one financial aid form, known as the FAFSA. Here are six key things you need to know before you fill it out.
What is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a form designed to help colleges understand your family's financial picture and determine your eligibility for federal, state and school-sponsored financial aid. Federal student aid may cover expenses like tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and dependent care. In 2017, for example, the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $120 billion in grants, work-study funds, low-interest loans and other financial aid.
Which schools use it?
Nearly 6,000 schools used the FAFSA in 2017 to determine financial aid for their students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That means you only need to fill out one form per student, whether or not you know the college they'll be attending (you can list more than one college on the form). Even if you don't think you qualify for aid because of your income level, it's a good idea to fill out a FAFSA just in case.
When should I fill it out?
You can start filling out the FAFSA as early as October 1 each year. Keep in mind that you must refile every year you or your student are in school, and you must file a separate form for each student. The deadline is June 30, but you can submit corrections or updates until around September 14.
Tip: Even though the federal deadline is June 30, different colleges or states may have their own deadlines, and some deadlines may be rolling. It's a good idea to file the FAFSA as early as possible after October 1 to maximize your chances of getting aid and to get a better sense of how much college will cost you.
What information will I need?
To complete the form, you need parents' Social Security numbers, federal income tax returns, W-2s and income records, as well as bank statements and investment records. Parents can fill out the FAFSA on behalf of a dependent student, or the student can fill it out using their parents' financial information.
Tip: The paperwork can take a few hours to complete, but gathering this information ahead of time can speed up the process.
What if I need help?
There are a number of paid services to assist you with the FAFSA. But before you do that, you may want to consider free online resources, such as FAFSA.gov.
How do I file for the FAFSA?
The U.S. Department of Education allows you to mail the FAFSA or file it online. To submit it digitally you'll need a Federal Student Aid, or FSA, ID account.
Tip: Once you submit the form, check in with the school's financial aid office about its timeline for notifying students about financial aid packages. Every school is different.
Once you understand how much financial aid you may receive, you can keep saving for college expenses and decide which school is the right fit.