For students of all ages, one of the most important steps in pursuing postsecondary education is determining how they will pay for it. And a critical part of that process is the FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But while the FAFSA has been on the web for more than twenty years, plenty of students still have lots of questions about how it works and what they need to do in order to successfully submit their own application.
Here are four things to know that can help you successfully navigate the process on your way to becoming a student.
An ID from Federal Student Aid (FSA),760 an office of the U.S. Department of Education, is needed before anything else. It is this ID that will allow you to access the systems, documentation, and forms needed to file your FAFSA—and not just you, but anyone who will be borrowing on your behalf or (if you’re a dependent) your parent or legal guardian.
Unlike a typical online account that you might be used to setting up with username and password, this one is used to electronically sign binding legal documents. In order to create an FSA ID, you will need your Social Security number, date of birth, and contact information (including either an email address or mobile phone number). If you have created an account with the FSA in the past, you may recall using an FSA PIN: note that the FSA ID replaced that program in 2015 and you will need to create a new account.
In order to be eligible for aid, you will also need to be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or an eligible non-citizen and to have a high school diploma or GED. When submitting a FAFSA, you must not be in default on a federal student loan or currently owe any money on a federal grant. Military veterans and active-duty service members who are eligible for GI Bill benefits may still file a FAFSA and apply for student aid.
One of the primary factors that Federal Student Aid uses to determine eligibility is your family’s financial information—including your tax information (if you’re filling out the current FAFSA, for school year 2020–21, you will need your 2018 tax records) and your savings and checking account balances.
In past years, FAFSA applicants have needed to manually fill in the requested tax information, but now you may be able to use the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). This handy feature allows most users to provide some of the basic information from their tax returns in an IRS portal, allowing it to pull information and prepopulate the FAFSA form in one easy step. In fact, FSA calls it “the fastest, most accurate way to input your tax return information into the FAFSA form.”
One of the most common questions applicants have about using their tax return information is what to do if they have had a major change in their financial situation since that tax year. Regardless of any significant changes that may have occurred between the requested tax return and your current income, FSA requires only that tax year’s data. FSA recommends contacting the school you plan to attend to discuss your situation with their financial aid office.
The federal deadline for the 2020–2021 FAFSA is 11:59 p.m. central time on June 30, 2021. But some schools have their own deadlines—as do some states. In fact, some states and some schools may award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning that they may run out of funds before you have even applied.
Another common misconception is that the FAFSA should only be filled out for students who are planning to apply for programs like the Pell Grant or who already anticipate needing to borrow funding. The FAFSA is a required step if you are interested in Federal Work-Study programs, a wide range of scholarships and grants, and some schools’ own financial aid programs.
But submitting your FAFSA as soon as possible isn’t only about the deadlines and having the best shot at aid programs. The earlier you submit your application, the more time you will have to determine what funding gaps may still exist and to create a plan for paying for your education. Do not let yourself end up in a situation where the new semester is just around the corner and you feel like you’re scrambling to figure out what programs you might be eligible for.
Errors on your FAFSA can create big headaches and put your eligibility for scholarships, grants, and loans at risk. While some questions and fields may seem straightforward, there are some fairly strict definitions for many terms that can easily trip up applicants. Especially when responding to questions about parents and legal guardians, household size, household income and tax information, and net worth, be sure to read all instructions carefully and try not to rush through the forms. In particular, for students who are legally considered dependents (by Congress, which may not be the same as the dependency filed with the IRS), there will be some questions about your own information and others about your parent or legal guardian. Do not accidentally confuse the two.
You should also be sure to add each potential school you are interested in attending. The application allows students to include up to ten prospective schools, though the FSA office provides an option to add additional schools once your FAFSA has been submitted if you are considering more than ten possible colleges. And lastly, don’t forget to sign the FAFSA with your FSA ID before filing!
The FAFSA may seem like an intimidating process but it is the best and quickest way to determine your eligibility for a number of federal aid programs, including scholarships, grants, and loans. Whether you’re pursuing postsecondary education for the first time or returning to school later in life, this is a crucial step in beginning the next chapter of your educational journey. Visit www.studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa to learn more or to begin the process.