What is the FAFSA?

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By Mark Kantrowitz

April 12, 2021

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students submit the FAFSA to apply for financial aid for college from the federal government, state governments and most colleges and universities. About 20 million students file the FAFSA each year. Financial aid includes grants, scholarships, student employment and student loans.

As the name suggests, the FAFSA is a free form. There is no need to pay anybody for help filing the FAFSA.

Use our Financial Aid Calculator to estimate your financial need


When to File the FAFSA

Students can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of the calendar year prior to the academic year of enrollment. For example, to apply for financial aid for 2022-2023, students can file the FAFSA starting on October 1, 2021.

The FAFSA must be filed no later than June 30 of the academic year or the last day of enrollment, whichever comes first. For example, the 2020-2021 FAFSA can be submitted no later than June 30, 2021.

Thus, there is a 21-month period during which the FAFSA can be filed.

It is best to file the FAFSA as soon as possible on or after October 1. Students who file the FAFSA during the first three months tend to get double the grants, on average, of students who file the FAFSA later.

See also: How to Prepare for filing the FAFSA

More than a dozen states award state grants on a first-come, first-served basis or until the money runs out. Other states have FAFSA deadlines in December, January, February and March. Some colleges have early deadlines, sometimes called priority deadlines, during which more institutional financial aid is available.

Even some federal student aid, such as campus-based aid, can be depleted. Each college gets a fixed allocation of Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS) funding. When the money is fully awarded, there is no more money available.

File the FAFSA every year, even if you got nothing other than student loans last year. More than 2 million students who don’t file the FAFSA would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant – more than a third of non-applicants – and 1.2 million would have qualified for the maximum Federal Pell Grant.


Which Form to File

There may be two FAFSAs that can be filed at any one time, the FAFSA for the current academic year and the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year. Make sure you are filing the correct one. During the overlap period, about 90% of students are applying for financial aid for the academic year that begins in the fall, not the current academic year.

How to File the FAFSA

To file the FAFSA, first get an FSA ID from fsaid.ed.gov. The FSA ID is a username and password that is used to electronically sign the FAFSA. The student and parents should each get their own FSA ID. Do not share your FSA ID with anybody.

The FAFSA can be filed online at fafsa.ed.gov. There is also a mobile version called myStudentAid that is available on the App Store for iOS devices and on Google Play for Android devices. Most families can complete the FAFSA in 30-60 minutes, including the time needed to gather documents needed to complete the FAFSA.

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool can be used to transfer information from your federal income tax returns into the FAFSA. Not only does this simplify the FAFSA by answering about a quarter of the questions, but it reduces the likelihood that your FAFSA will be selected for verification. Any data elements that are transferred from the IRS are not subject to verification.

A new, simplified version of the FAFSA will be available for the 2023-2024 academic year and going forward. The new form contains fewer questions, and no longer requires students to manually report certain types of untaxed income.


What Happens After You File 

Some FAFSAs will be selected for verification. The U.S. Department of Education uses a risk model to select FAFSAs that are likely to include inaccurate information. During verification, the student will be asked to provide copies of backup documentation for certain data elements on the FAFSA and to confirm certain household demographic data. If the student did not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, they may be asked to provide copies of W-2s and 1099s or an IRS Tax Return Transcript or an IRS Verification of Nonfiling Letter.

You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) a few days to a few weeks after you file the FAFSA, depending on whether you filed the FAFSA online, signed the FAFSA with an FSA ID and provided your email address on the FAFSA. The SAR provides an opportunity to correct errors on the FAFSA. The SAR also includes the expected family contribution (EFC), a measure of the family’s financial strength.

The EFC is calculated using a federal financial aid formula, called the federal need analysis methodology, which is based on the student and parent income and assets and various demographic questions. The financial aid formula is heavily weighted toward income and cash flow.

If the student’s ability to pay for college is affected by special circumstances, such as a change in income or unusual family financial circumstances, the student can appeal for more financial aid. Contact the college’s financial aid office for information about how to file an appeal.

How funds are disbursed

Financial aid funds, including federal student aid, are distributed through the college financial aid office. There may be an automatic 30-day delay for disbursement of student loan funds for first-time, first-year federal student loan borrowers. Financial aid is first applied to tuition and fees and, if the student is living in college housing, to room and board. Credit balances will be “refunded” to the student within 14 days and can be used to cover other college costs, such as textbooks and transportation.

How to Get Help 

Students and parents who need help with the FAFSA can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). The FSAIC is a free hotline sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

You can also send email to FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov, but don’t include private personal information in the email message.

Help information is also available at fafsa.ed.gov/help.htm.

For problems involving the FSA ID, students and parents can call 1-800-557-7394.

Individuals who are hearing impaired can call the FSAIC by TTY at 1-800-730-8913.

The National College Access Network (NCAN) runs the Form Your Future web site. The resources section of this site provides information about College Goal Sunday and other events where financial aid professionals provide free help completing the FAFSA.

See also: Complete Guide to FAFSA and Financial Aid

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