Key takeaways

  • The cost of college is rising, making it difficult for students to afford higher education without financial aid, and making it even more important to understand the process of applying for financial aid.
  • FAFSA is a free application that students must fill out every year in order to qualify for federal financial aid, including grants, work-study programs and federal student loans.
  • The FAFSA eligibility requirements include being a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, having a high school diploma or GED and showing financial need.
  • While the FAFSA is a great option for financial aid, there are also other alternatives available, such as scholarships and private loans.

The cost of college is only getting steeper. The National Center for Education Statistics states that a private nonprofit four-year school cost $34,000 in the 2010-2011 school year and $38,800 in the 2021-2022 school year. Public school tuition rose less, with $9,100 in the 2010-2011 school year and $9,700 in the 2021-2022 school year.

About 17.5 million students apply for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, funding in the 2021-2022 application cycle. If you need help paying for college, there are FAFSA resources. The FAFSA 2023 requirements are not significantly different from other years.

What is the FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you must complete to receive federal or state financial aid as a college student. The 2023-24 academic year application opened on Oct. 1, 2022, and closes on June 30, 2024, although many states have earlier deadlines for state-based aid. Some types of aid are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you fill out the FAFSA, the better.

The form is free to fill out and asks questions about your family’s financial situation to determine how much your parents can reasonably afford to help you pay for school. You must 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 and federal student loans.

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 to qualify for federal financial aid. Even if you don’t think you’ll need assistance with your tuition, room and board and other eligible expenses, having access to it can make a difference if your financial situation changes.

Basic FAFSA eligibility requirements

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.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress while in school.
  • Not be in default on federal student loans or owe money on a federal grant.

For the 2023-24 award year, males between the age of 18 and 25 no longer need to register with the Selective Service in order to receive federal aid.

You’ll also need to show some financial need as part of FAFSA eligibility. This comes through your expected family contribution (EFC) or Student Aid Index (SAI). Your EFC or SAI calculates how much your family should pay on your behalf. It also determines the amount of money you can receive through federal programs.

How to submit your FAFSA

There are a few basic steps in filling out the FAFSA.

1. Set up your FSA ID

To start the application online, you need to set up an FSA ID for yourself and have your parents set up their own if you’re a dependent student. The FSA ID is used to log in to your application and electronically sign the application when you’re ready to submit it.

You’ll need your Social Security number, full name, date of birth and email address or phone number to create your FSA ID. Only one FSA ID can be tied to any email, so you and your parents must use separate email addresses to create your IDs.

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Keep in mind: If you’re a student returning to the application, you can use the FSA ID from last year and hit “FAFSA renewal.” This will pull some of the information from last year’s application.

2. Add your personal information and schools

The personal information section will ask for your Social Security number, birthdate and driver’s license. There’s also a school section where you can add up to 10 schools where you want the FAFSA information to be sent.

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Keep in mind: If you’re unsure which schools you want to apply for, don’t worry. You can make changes to this list later. Also, consider putting at least one state school on the list.

“If you aren’t happy with your aid packages, state schools and community colleges are much cheaper with in-state tuition, so it’s always good to have that option,” says Charlie Javice, founder of Frank, a startup that helps students complete the FAFSA application process.

Some states require that a state school be at the top of the list for you to be considered for state aid, so take the time to check your state’s guidelines.

3. Enter the financials

Next on the application is inputting the financial information that will be used to determine your aid eligibility. For the 2023-24 year, you will input financial information from the 2021 tax year. To make your life a bit easier, you may be able to add financial information from your tax return to the FAFSA application using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

4. Submit the FAFSA

You can apply by paper using the printable PDF version of the FAFSA, through the myStudentAid mobile app or on the Federal Student Aid website. After submitting the application online, look for a confirmation screen to verify completion.

Can you lose FAFSA 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 kept 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 the progress level, 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 don’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 or SAI.
  • Your parents didn’t file taxes: Although you may still be eligible for unsubsidized federal student loans, you won’t be eligible for grants, work-study programs or other need-based federal aid, as the Department of Education won’t be able to calculate your EFC or SAI.
  • 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.
  • Your citizenship status expired: If you were an eligible noncitizen but your status expired, you’ll lose eligibility until you can reinstate it.

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 are available outside the FAFSA. Additionally, you can apply for scholarships and grants from private organizations through websites like and Fastweb. Both websites maintain databases with millions of opportunities.
  • Private student loans: It’s best to apply for federal loans before private loans. Most federal loans don’t require a credit check, and the Department of Education provides certain benefits you can’t get from private lenders. Private student loans can fill the gap if you need more finances.
  • 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 having a job on the side difficult, try to work during the summer.
  • Employer assistance programs: If you’re already employed, you can ask your HR department if your company offers some college aid in tuition reimbursement.

The bottom line

Filling out the FAFSA through your school can help you learn what federal and state financial aid you are eligible for. The largest benefit of filing out the FAFSA is that you may qualify for grants, which you do not have to pay back. You may also learn about federal loans, which carry greater consumer protections than private loans like debt forgiveness.