Editor’s Note: Due to major changes coming to the FAFSA, the form for the 2024-2025 academic year is delayed until December 2023. This article reflects the most recent information, but final details will not be available until the new FAFSA form is released.
Students who are enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school, are a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and meet other requirements can receive financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
According to Education Data Initiative, the average cost for undergraduate students attending a four-year private nonprofit institution is $38,768 in tuition and fees per year. For students attending in-state public four year institutions, the average is $9,678 in tuition alone. Living on campus bumps these numbers up to $55,840 and $26,027 per year, respectively.
If you can’t afford to pay for this cost out-of pocket, understanding the FAFSA requirements can help you possibly fund this worthwhile expense.
What Is FAFSA?
The FAFSA is the official application form to request financial aid for higher education from the U.S. government. It determines whether undergraduate and graduate students are eligible to receive federal grants, work-study, and federal student loans. Federal aid can only be used toward qualifying college expenses.
It’s also often used by states and schools to see if you’re eligible for its student aid programs. Some private entities might also use it to determine your eligibility for their own financial aid programs.
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How FAFSA Works
Students must complete the FAFSA before each college year. Applications must be received by the June 30 deadline. However, you can begin submitting your FAFSA for the following school year starting on October 1 (for the 2024-25 FAFSA, the FAFSA will be available in December 2023), and states and colleges often have earlier deadlines for state- and school-sponsored aid.
Some federal aid is granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Many of the aid programs are based on need, though some — like Direct Unsubsidized Student Loans and Direct PLUS Loans — are not.
To start, you’ll have to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID online. If you’re a dependent student, one of your parents also needs to create their own FSA ID. While filling out the FAFSA, you may need to reference or submit supporting documentation, such as your Social Security number, bank account statements and tax return details, and possibly a parent’s financial paperwork, too.
After submitting the FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which is an overview of the information you included on your FAFSA. Once your FAFSA is processed, you’ll receive a financial aid offer from your school. It will outline the types of federal student aid you’re eligible for, the amounts, and instructions on how to accept the award offer.
After you’ve selected the financial aid options you want to accept, the funds will be sent directly to your school. Then, your school will apply the funds to your unpaid account balance.
The FAFSA may also be used to apply for financial aid for summer classes.
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FAFSA qualifications include academic and financial criteria. Although some federal aid programs, like the federal Pell Grant, require you to demonstrate financial need, you might still qualify for other federal aid options if you meet the remaining FAFSA eligibility requirements.
The level of education you’ve completed must meet the minimum requirements to qualify for a college or career school program. This includes a high school diploma or General Education Development certificate from a state-approved school or setting.
Citizenship or Residency and Social Security Number
Another of the FAFSA eligibility requirements is that students must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. National with an active Social Security number.
Eligible non-citizen students might still be eligible for federal aid if they have:
• A permanent resident Green Card (Form 1-551, I-151, or I-551C)
• An arrival-departure record (I-94)
• A T-VISA
• Battered Immigrant Status
Be Enrolled or Accepted
Students must also be enrolled as a regular student at a degree- or certificate-granting school. To meet FAFSA qualifications for a Direct student loan, you must be enrolled at least half-time.
Maintain Satisfactory Academic Performance
Returning students who are applying for federal financial aid must maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP).
Each school determines its own SAP criteria, which includes minimum GPA, minimum passing grades for courses, number of required course credits or hours, and the timeline it deems necessary to advance toward a degree or certificate.
Age and Dependency Status
Your dependency status determines whose information you’ll need to include on your FAFSA. Dependent students are required to provide their parents’ financial information on their FAFSA while independent students might not need to.
Generally, you’re considered an independent student if at least one of the following applies to you:
• For the school year you’re applying for aid, you’ll be 24 years old by January 1.
• You’re married or separated (but not divorced).
• You’re a graduate-level student.
• You have children and provide more than half of their support.
• You have other dependents in your household whom you provide more than half of their support.
• You’re in the U.S. armed forces and on active duty (non-training).
• You’re a U.S. armed forces veteran.
• Since turning age 13, your parents were deceased, you were in foster care or a ward or dependent of the court.
• You’re an emancipated minor or are in a legal guardianship.
• You’re an unaccompanied homeless or self-supporting youth at risk of homelessness.
A common misconception is that students or their parents must earn below a certain income to meet FAFSA eligibility requirements. However, there is not a FAFSA income limit for student applicants and their families.
Required Documents to Submit FAFSA
Although you won’t need to submit copies of additional documents with your FAFSA, you’ll need to refer to certain documents to complete your application. It may also be helpful to keep these documents on file in case your school requests to see them.
Social Security Number
You’ll need your Social Security number to include on your FAFSA form. If you’re a dependent, the form also asks for your parents’ Social Security number. If they don’t have one, enter all zeros without dashes.
W-2s and Untaxed Income Records
A main FAFSA requirement to successfully complete the application is reporting your income, and your parents’ income, if applicable. Make sure to reference all W-2s and untaxed income documentation, like interest income, child support, or other noneducation benefits.
If you are a dependent student, you’ll need to provide information from both yours and your parent’s W-2.
You’ll need to reference your most current tax return information as well as your parents’ tax returns if you’re a dependent student. If you’ve already filed your tax return for the year, you might be eligible to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax information into the FAFSA.
You’ll also need to include your and your parents’ deposit account balances, like checking and savings, on your FAFSA. Similarly, investments, like stocks, bonds, and real estate that isn’t your primary home, must be included on your FAFSA form.
Alternatives to Federal Aid
Outside of the FAFSA application, there are other avenues to secure funds to pay for your higher education.
Consider tapping into existing savings, if your financial aid award comes up short. Doing so might help you avoid taking on more student loan debt.
There are certain accounts such as 529 savings plans that are designed to help parents and families save for their child’s education.
Research non-federal grants from your state, school, nonprofit, or other private organization. These funds don’t need to be repaid.
Scholarships are another aid source that doesn’t need to be repaid after leaving school. Find state-, school-, or private-sponsored scholarships to find more cash. There are online databases such as Scholarships.com that aggregate information on available scholarships. Take a look to review eligibility criteria and application requirements.
If you can manage balancing schoolwork with a part-time job, earning an income while enrolled in school can help you pay your way through your education.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans are available through private lenders, like banks, credit unions, and online institutions. These loans come with varying terms and interest rates, and can help cover the gap between your cost of attendance and existing financial aid.
When comparing private student loans and federal student loans, know that private lenders aren’t required to offer the same benefits or protections as federal student loans. As a result, private student loans are generally considered an option only after other sources of financing have been exhausted.
Regardless of your or your family’s income, it’s generally worth submitting an application if you meet the FAFSA requirements. Since it’s a free application, there’s nothing to lose and much to gain if you’re eligible for aid, including scholarships and grants that don’t need to be repaid.
If you still need financial aid after submitting your FAFSA and searching for scholarships, consider a SoFi private student loan. It’s a zero fee loan option that offers competitive rates for qualifying borrowers.
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How much or little income do you need to qualify for aid through FAFSA?
There are no income requirements for FAFSA applicants. Instead, a variety of factors determine whether a student is eligible for federal aid, including the school’s cost of attendance, the student’s year in school, their dependency status, family size, and more.
What is the maximum amount of money FAFSA gives?
The maximum amount of aid you can receive through the FAFSA depends on which federal aid programs you qualify for. Different programs have varying limits.
For example, the maximum Pell Grant award changes annually; for the 2022-23 award year the limit is $6,895. Direct Loans also have their own annual and aggregate borrowing limits.
How does parent income affect FAFSA aid?
Parent income that’s reported on a student’s FAFSA is used to calculate the applicant’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a number on an index that helps schools determine your financial need if you attend its school. It also identifies your eligibility for certain financial aid programs like the Pell Grant or Direct Subsidized Loans.
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