College is expensive, and most students heading to school can’t afford the price tag. According to the College Board, the average price for tuition and fees for public four-year institutions is $10,560 for the 2020-21 school year. And that’s not even including room and board, transportation, books and other expenses, which bring the total to $26,820.
If you can’t foot your college bill in cash, you can apply for help by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Most students qualify for at least some aid. Here’s what you need to know about FAFSA requirements, how to apply and how to maintain your eligibility for financial aid.
What is the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you need to complete if you want to receive federal financial aid as a college student. The application asks questions about your family’s financial situation to determine how much your parents can reasonably afford to help you pay for school.
The form is free to fill out, and you need to submit it every school year to maintain your eligibility for financial aid. Once you submit the form, your college’s financial aid office uses the information to calculate how much aid you qualify for in the form of grants, work-study programs, student loans and more.
Why should I consider the FAFSA?
It’s always a good idea to fill out and submit the FAFSA every year because it’s the only way you can qualify for federal financial aid. Even if you don’t expect to need assistance with your tuition, room and board and other eligible expenses, having access to it can make a difference if your plans change.
Basic FAFSA eligibility requirements
In order to be eligible for federal financial aid, you’ll need to:
- Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen with a valid Social Security number (with certain exceptions).
- Have a high school diploma or a GED certificate.
- Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a qualifying degree or certificate program.
- Be registered with the Selective Service if you’re a male between 18 and 25 years of age.
- Maintain satisfactory academic progress while in school.
- Not be in default on federal student loans or owe money on a federal grant.
You’ll also need to show some level of financial need. This comes through your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC calculates how much your family should pay on your behalf.
Your EFC not only determines what your family is expected to pay but also what you’re eligible to receive through federal programs. FAFSA’s need-based funding, like grants and scholarships, is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more money you could receive based on your EFC.
Submitting your form
When you’re ready to fill out the FAFSA, you can do so through the Federal Student Aid website. You’ll start by creating a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, which you can use to sign your forms electronically, keep track of your application, sign loan contracts and access certain information.
There are a lot of documents you’ll need to gather; here’s what you can expect to provide on the form:
- Your Social Security number.
- Your parent’s Social Security number if you’re a dependent.
- Your driver’s license.
- Your Alien Registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen.
- The most recent federal tax information available, including W-2s, Form 1040s, foreign tax returns or tax returns for U.S. territories.
- Financial information for you and/or your parents, including savings accounts, current bank statements, investments, assets and business details.
- Records of untaxed income for you and your parents (if applicable), such as child support, interest income and veterans noneducation benefits.
In addition to verifying that you aren’t in default on a federal loan and don’t owe money on a federal grant, you’ll also agree to only use the money for eligible educational expenses.
How you could lose eligibility
Federal financial aid can be incredibly helpful for students in need, but it’s not guaranteed. Here are some situations that may cause you to lose your eligibility, at least temporarily:
- Your grades slipped: If you haven’t been keeping up with your classes, your grades might’ve dropped. Not making or keeping up satisfactory academic progress means that you could lose your eligibility. Each school determines what that level of progress is, so check the policy before you start classes. You can file an appeal if you disagree with the school’s decision or have a good reason for not keeping up.
- You forgot to renew: Remember, FAFSA requirements include submitting a new application every year you’re enrolled in school and need financial assistance. If you didn’t complete the form, you won’t get additional funding for the next school year. The earlier you apply, the more you could receive based on your EFC.
- Your parents didn’t file taxes: You’ll need the previous year’s taxes before filing. If your parents haven’t done them yet, you could lose eligibility. Remember that you file every year, so if you’re a dependent student, you’ll need your parents to file every year on time to remain eligible.
- You defaulted on student loans: If you’ve previously had student loans that you didn’t repay, there’s a chance that they went into default. This is most applicable to graduate, professional and returning students who have taken out loans before. The same goes for if you owe money on a federal student grant.
- You’ve committed a certain offense. If you were convicted of a drug-related offense while you were receiving financial aid, you could lose your aid or even be asked to repay what you received when the incident occurred. You may also be limited in your options if you’re subject to a civil commitment for a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense.
- Your citizenship status expired: If you were an eligible noncitizen but your status expired, you’ll lose eligibility until you can reinstate it.
- You’re incarcerated: If you’re in prison, you’ll no longer be eligible for certain types of federal aid until you complete your sentence.
Alternatives to the FAFSA
The FAFSA is a great place to start with getting money to pay for college, but it’s far from the only way to raise funds. Other options include:
- Grants and scholarships: Your college may offer merit- and need-based scholarships and grants that don’t fall under the federal financial aid program. Additionally, you can apply for scholarships and grants from private organizations through websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb. Both websites maintain databases with millions of opportunities.
- Private student loans: In most cases, it’s best to apply for federal loans before private loans. This is primarily because most federal loans don’t require a credit check, and the Department of Education provides certain benefits you can’t get from private lenders. But if you’ve exhausted all of your other financial aid options, private student loans can fill the gap.
- Savings: You and your parents can save for college costs through a 529 plan, which allows for tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals as long as they’re for eligible expenses. Additionally, many states offer additional tax breaks in the form of deductions or credits to encourage educational savings.
- Income: While it’s not always ideal, getting a part-time job while you’re in school can save you thousands of dollars in student loan debt over the entire time you’re in school. If your class schedule and homework make it difficult to have a job on the side, at least try to plan to work during the summer.