Getting a college education is more expensive than ever, and many students rely on financial aid to help them cover those expenses. To access federal financial aid benefits, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA allows you to access federal grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans.

Whether you qualify for need- or merit-based financial aid or not, filling out the FAFSA should be the first thing you do if you need money to pay for college. It’s the only way to access federal student loans, which generally have much better terms and borrower protections than private loans.

What types of financial aid are available?

At the federal level, you might be eligible for many different types of aid, including:

  • Scholarships: These tend to be merit-based awards given out based on your grades or test scores. Scholarships are free and don’t need to be paid back.
  • Grants: These are based on need. The Pell Grant is one of the most popular federal grants available. Like scholarships, grants are free money and you don’t need to repay your award.
  • Work-study: The federal work-study program lets you take on a job to earn money, but that money goes toward paying for school. The jobs vary by industry and location, but they all pay at least the minimum wage.
  • Student loans: There are several types of federal student loans, some of which are available only to students with financial need and others that are available to all. While you’re usually not required to make payments while you’re in school, you’ll start repayment once you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment.

Outside of federal options available through the FAFSA, you can also find financial aid through private scholarships and grants or private student loans.

Who is eligible for financial aid?

Most of the people who apply for federal financial aid receive it. You’re eligible for financial aid based on:

  • Your citizenship. Federal financial aid is available to U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens, which includes U.S. nationals, U.S. permanent residents or individuals who have an Arrival-Departure Record with one of several designations.
  • Your diploma. You’ll need to have a high school diploma, GED certificate or certified homeschool education that’s approved under your state’s law.
  • Where you’re accepted. You have to be enrolled or at least accepted for enrollment at an eligible program at a participating college or university.
  • Have the proper paperwork. You need to have a valid Social Security number.
  • FAFSA completion. You can’t get financial aid without completing the FAFSA.
  • Your grades. You have to maintain satisfactory academic progress based on your school’s guidelines.

For non-federal aid, these requirements may be different. For instance, there are plenty of scholarships and loans available to students who are not U.S. citizens; private companies set their own eligibility requirements and may be more lenient with your enrollment and academic status.

What is the highest income to qualify for financial aid?

There is no income threshold stopping you from receiving federal aid. Your application, family size, year in school and other factors determine your approval status.

There are some forms of aid that are based on your expected family contribution, which does use your parents’ income as part of the calculation. If your family has a high income, you may not qualify for these need-based types of aid, such as grants or subsidized student loans. However, you can still qualify for federal unsubsidized student loans, and many colleges offer scholarships that are strictly merit-based.

Can I apply for financial aid without my parents?

You can apply for financial aid as a dependent or independent student. For federal financial aid, you may be considered an independent student if you:

  • Are at least 24 years old.
  • Are married (or separated but not divorced).
  • Are working toward a master’s or doctorate degree.
  • Have children or dependents who receive more than half of their support from you.
  • Are a veteran.
  • Are currently serving on active duty.
  • Were in foster care, a ward of the court or a dependent of the court after age 13.
  • Are an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship.
  • Are an unaccompanied youth who is experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

If you aren’t any of these, you’re considered a dependent student. This means that you’re required to give your parent’s financial information on your FAFSA. But as an independent student, your parent’s finances aren’t considered part of your application.

What disqualifies you from getting financial aid?

If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you can’t get federal financial aid. For every year you want to apply for aid, you’ll have to fill out a new FAFSA form.

If you become incarcerated, you may lose your eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant or student loans — the exception being that if you’re incarcerated in an institution other than a federal or state institution, you may still get a Pell Grant. You are able to get a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant or work-study regardless of where you’re incarcerated, but the logistics of your situation means that you likely would not.

You may also become disqualified from receiving federal student aid if your eligible noncitizen status expired, if you fail to make satisfactory academic progress while in school or if you default on your federal student loan.

How to become eligible for financial aid again

There are a lot of circumstances that might’ve stopped you from receiving financial aid. Because of this, how to regain eligibility is different depending on how you lost it:

  • Student loan default: If you defaulted on your student loans and want to get financial aid again, you’ll need to get out of student loan default first before qualifying.
  • Incarceration: As soon as you are released from incarceration, you regain most of your eligibility for federal student aid — the exception being if you are subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense.
  • Poor academic performance: If you haven’t completed enough credits or if you’re no longer making satisfactory academic progress, you can talk to your school’s financial aid office to see if you can appeal the decision.
  • Expired status: If you were an eligible noncitizen whose status was revoked or expired, you’ll need to get that status reinstated.
  • Property lien: If you have a property under a judgment lien showing that you owe an outstanding debt owed to the United States, you’ll need to pay that debt in full before you can become eligible for financial aid again.