What is FAFSA?

The FAFSA takes less than an hour to fill out but it can help cover the costs of higher education.

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid — FAFSA — is the form students and some parents fill out to be eligible for federal financial aid for college. (iStock)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid — FAFSA — is the form you must fill out each year before you can access financial aid for college from the federal government.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education issues over $120 billion in financial assistance to help more than 13 million students pay for their higher education. Funds come in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study opportunities and federal loans.

For each student, it all starts by filling out the free FAFSA form.

If you’ve exhausted federal aid options and need a private student loan, you can visit Credible to compare private student loan rates and learn more.

Who should fill out the FAFSA?

If you’re planning on attending college in the next academic year, you should complete and submit the FAFSA — it could result in hundreds or thousands of dollars in financial aid. That alone should be enough motivation to fill out the FAFSA, but a few more good reasons to complete the form include:

  • It’s free to complete the FAFSA. This eliminates the financial barrier to applying for federal assistance.
  • It’s fast and simple. The application typically takes less than an hour to complete, and it could translate to significant funding for your education.
  • It helps most students who apply. Most U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens can qualify for some type of federal financial aid.
  • It’s not just for student loans. The FAFSA also identifies college scholarships, grants and work-study programs — which don’t require you to repay the funds.
  • It may be required. Filling out the FAFSA is a requisite application step for many private scholarships.

Be aware, if you don’t complete and submit the FAFSA, most federal aid will be unavailable to you.

How to fill out the FAFSA

The 2022-23 FAFSA application opened on Oct. 1, 2021, and you can fill out the FAFSA on the StudentAid.gov website.  

Documents you need to complete the FAFSA

The FAFSA requires you to have some supporting documents as part of the submission process. You may want to gather the following information and documents before you begin filling out the FAFSA:

  • Social Security number or Alien Registration number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Income tax returns, W-2s and other income records
  • Bank statements and any investment account records
  • Records of any untaxed income
  • An FSA ID to sign electronically

If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to submit most of this information for your parents as well.

Tip: If you’re filling out the FAFSA online, you may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import your federal tax return data.

When to submit your FAFSA

When it comes to FAFSA deadlines, three due dates are important to know: federal, state and college.

Federal FAFSA deadlines

The federal deadline to submit your FAFSA form for the 2021-22 school year is 11:59 p.m. Central time on June 30, 2022, and the last day for corrections and updates is 11:59 p.m. Central time on Sept. 10, 2022.

For the 2022-23 academic year, you must submit the FAFSA form by 11:59 p.m. Central time on June 30, 2023. The government allows extra time for you to make corrections and updates until 11:59 p.m. Central time on Sept. 10, 2023.

State FAFSA deadlines

Many states have earlier deadlines for their financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education lists state FAFSA deadlines on its website to help you find the due date for your state. 

College FAFSA deadlines

Deadlines for colleges, universities and professional programs vary, but they typically come before the beginning of the academic year. Many colleges set priority deadlines, which means you need to submit your FAFSA by the priority date to be considered for the most financial aid. You can find due dates in the financial aid section of most college websites. You can also call the school’s financial aid office to inquire about deadlines.

FAFSA funding is often limited and is only available while funds last. Submit your application as soon as possible to give yourself the best chance at getting the most assistance.

With Credible, you can compare student loan rates from various lenders without affecting your credit.

What types of aid are offered through the FAFSA?

Many students don’t apply for financial aid because they believe their family earns too much. But the truth is, there are no FAFSA income limits, and any eligible student can submit a FAFSA form to see if they qualify for assistance.

Even though there aren’t income limits with FAFSA, there are need-based and non-need-based options for aid.

Need-based financial aid

  • Federal Pell Grants — These grants are for undergraduate students with a significant financial need for assistance to cover their education costs. The Federal Pell Grant award amounts change every year — the maximum is $6,495 for the 2021-22 award year.
  • Work-study — Federal work-study programs provide part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students who demonstrate financial need. These jobs are generally related to the student’s major or course of study, or are beneficial to the community. Work-study assistance doesn’t need to be repaid.
  • Federal Direct Subsidized Loans — These loans, also known as Subsidized ​​Stafford Loans, are available to students who demonstrate financial need. The amount you can borrow ranges from $5,500 to $12,500 a year, depending on your year in school and dependency status.

Non-need-based financial aid

  • Merit-based scholarships — Merit-based scholarships are a type of financial aid issued to students according to their academic, athletic, artistic or special-interest endeavors. Scholarships between $1,000 and $35,000 a year can help students pay for college, with the average award estimated at roughly $5,000.
  • Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans — Undergraduate and graduate students are eligible for these loans without providing evidence of financial need. Like Federal Direct Subsidized Loans, the school determines how much you can borrow. The maximum borrowing amount ranges from $5,500 to $12,500 a year for undergraduates and up to $20,500 a year for graduates and professional program students.
  • Federal PLUS Loans — PLUS Loans are intended for graduate and professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate students. These loans help pay for the costs of higher education not covered by other forms of financial aid. The maximum borrowing amount is the school’s cost of attendance minus any other awarded financial aid.

If you’ve received financial aid but it’s not enough to cover your education costs, you can use Credible to compare student loan rates from private lenders.

FAFSA definitions

As you learn more about FAFSA, you may see some unfamiliar terms. Here are the definitions of some commonly used terms to better prepare you for filling out the FAFSA: 

  • FSA ID — When you sign up with Federal Student Aid (FSA) online, you’ll create a username and password — known as your FSA ID. The ID is important because you’ll use it every year when you fill out the FAFSA and thereafter to manage your federal student loans.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — EFC refers to an index number colleges use to determine the amount of financial aid you might receive from their institution. The number is based on a formula that considers your family’s income, assets, benefits and other financial factors.
  • Cost of Attendance (COA) The COA is the amount it costs to attend a school. The COA considers an extensive list of expenses, from tuition and room and board to child care, disability-related costs and more.
  • Student Aid Report (SAR) — Your SAR is an important document you receive after submitting your FAFSA. The document contains valuable information about your financial aid eligibility, including your EFC and whether verification is needed for information on your application.
  • Award letter — This is another important document you’ll receive that details how much financial aid the school may give you to help pay for college. The letter may include grants, scholarships, work-study programs and how much you may be eligible to borrow through federal student loans.