What is FAFSA and Who Can Apply?

FAFSA

Students today have many options when it comes to paying for college. From federal, state, and private loans to scholarships and grants, there can be a whole lot to take into consideration.

Of these, federal student financial aid is the largest and most popular source of college funding in the U.S. for those who are eligible. While federal aid breaks down into a number of different programs and types, the application used to access this federal funds is what's known as the "FAFSA."

Understanding the FAFSA

"FAFSA" is short for the "Free Application for Federal Student Aid," and is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Students who are in college or people thinking of going to college can complete the FAFSA to determine their eligibility for different types of financial aid made available by the government.

Most students submit their FAFSA online, via the Department of Education's dedicated website at fafsa.gov. You can also print or request a paper version to submit by mail. There is no cost when submitting your FAFSA to the Department of Education.

Alternatively, some private companies offer fee-based FAFSA preparation services. By law, however, these companies must tell customers that they are not affiliated with the Department of Education, and also that students can submit a FAFSA directly to the government at no charge.

Who Can Apply?

Anyone who is in college or considering attending college can complete the FAFSA. The submission window opens each year on January 1, and stays open for several months. Even if you have to provide estimates (e.g. regarding annual income), those can be revised later.

Because FAFSA determines your aid eligibility for only one academic year, students who are already enrolled in college and receiving aid must renew their FAFSA annually. This requirement is to determine any necessary adjustments in your eligibility status, as an individual's or family's finances can change year over year.

One common misconception is that only very low-income individuals can benefit from filling out the FAFSA, and therefore many students and families never bother. While it's true that many types of federal financial aid are need-based (i.e. scaled depending on one's ability to pay for school), income is only one of many factors taken into account in determining eligibility.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that some types of federal aid – for example, unsubsidized loans – are not need-based. And since the FAFSA is free to fill out and can take 30 minutes or more to complete, there's really nothing to lose.

While nearly everyone planning to attend college can and should complete the FAFSA, there are some specific eligibility limitations to look out for. For example, certain criminal convictions may make a person ineligible to receive federal student financial aid.

After you've submitted your FAFSA, you'll receive what's known as a Student Aid Report (SAR), which details the types of federal financial aid for which you could be eligible. You'll also be shown your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount, based on personal/family financial data provided in your FAFSA and a series of behind-the-scenes calculations, that it is presumed you will be able to contribute to your college expenses per academic year.

A noteworthy feature of the FAFSA is that it allows you to indicate up to 10 schools you'd like the results sent to. This step is done to help integrate and streamline loan processes that route through a school itself versus directly from the government. Also, your FAFSA results will be made available to agencies in your state, if applicable, that distribute need-based financial aid.

While completing the FAFSA itself is no guarantee that a student will receive aid or in what amount, the fact is that most eligible students are entitled to borrow federal loans each year to help pay for school.

Written by Ashford University staff

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