The first step to applying for federal financial aid (grants, need-based scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study jobs) is filling out your FAFSA®. Some states and schools also require it for their grants, merit-based scholarships, and loans. We’re here to help make the application process easier with FAQs, step-by-step instructions, explainers, and more.
Let’s start with the basics: FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and must be submitted every year a student hopes to receive federal financial aid. Many states and schools also require FAFSA information for their funding and scholarships.
The form is available online at Studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa . You can also print out the application and mail it in. The form asks questions about the income and finances of the student (and spouse if married) and the student’s parents, plus questions about the student’s education plans. According to StudentAid.gov, it takes most people less than an hour to fill out the FAFSA form.
For the upcoming academic year (2024-25), you can submit the form in December 2023. Generally, the federal deadline is June 30 (before the academic year starts), but states and schools may have earlier deadlines. Also, keep in mind that funding is limited and often given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Here are some articles that go into more depth covering FAFSA basics:
Whether you’re starting college or going back for another degree, keeping the different loan types straight in your head is not easy. There are two types of loans — federal student loans and private student loans. Federal student loans are given by the U.S. Department of Education, whereas private student loans are given through a private lender and do not require you to complete the FAFSA.
Federal loans have amount limits and eligibility requirements, including financial need for certain loans. Private loans generally require a credit check, proof of income, and/or a cosigner.
Here’s a guide to the different types of federal student loans available.
Direct PLUS Loans are offered to parents paying for their dependent child’s undergraduate education and to graduate or professional degree-seeking students.
An additional source for education funding are private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Private student loans do not require a FAFSA application and are often used as a supplement to federal aid.
It can sometimes be difficult to determine which loan option will work best for you. These comparison articles may help you choose from federal, private, or both.
Below, we outline the basic requirements (set by law) to receive federal student loans and other federal aid. For a deeper dive, check out our student loan requirements article.
To receive federal aid, students must either be enrolled, or accepted for enrollment, in an eligible degree or certificate program. You must be enrolled as a “regular student,” meaning you have been accepted at the institution in order to obtain a degree, certificate, or other recognized education credential. Students must also be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds.
Part of the FAFSA includes signing a certification statement. This states that you do not have any federal student loans in default and you do not owe money on a federal grant. Signing this statement certifies that you will use any federal student aid you receive for educational purposes only.
Students must prove that they are qualified to obtain a college education by showing they have a high school diploma, General Education Development (GED) certificate, completed high school education by a homeschool approved under state law, or are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program. Career pathway programs require that you also meet an “ability-to-benefit” alternative that you can learn more about here.
In addition to loans, student aid can also come in the form of grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs.
Now that you know the basics, let’s go through some important deadlines for the student aid process.
Each state has its own deadline for submitting the FAFSA form, and some state-specific grants have their own deadlines for submission, as well. To find the deadline for your state, check the official FAFSA website.
In addition to state deadlines, colleges may also have other deadlines that vary by school. Check with the schools that you are interested in attending to ensure you submit your FAFSA on time.
Once you have a student loan, how do you go about paying it back?
When it comes to financial aid, there are many topics to cover. Here are some additional resources that can make the process easier.
Sometimes the cost of college can exceed the amount of federal aid you receive. That’s when you might consider a private student loan with SoFi. SoFi offers no-fee student loans with an easy application that can be done entirely online.