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 $10,440. And that’s not even including room and board, which brings the total to $21,950.
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 apply and how to maintain eligibility.
FAFSA eligibility requirements
To be eligible for the FAFSA, you’ll need:
A high school diploma or GED.
To be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen (like a permanent resident) with a valid Social Security number.
To be enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a qualifying degree or certificate program.
To be registered with the Selective Service if you’re a male between 18 and 25 years of age.
To maintain satisfactory academic progress while in school.
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.
Documentation needed to submit the FAFSA
Before you submit your FAFSA, get your paperwork in order. To receive federal funding, you’re required to submit a FAFSA every year that you’re eligible to receive aid.
Your FSA ID is your federal student aid ID. This username and password lets you electronically sign your form and expedite the application process. It also lets you keep track of your application and funding so you can easily keep up with your FAFSA every year. If you’re a dependent student, your parent will also need an FSA ID. Do this before you start the application process, or else you’ll face delays.
You’re going to need to get some paperwork in order, including:
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 1040, 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.
Verification of eligibility
To qualify for FAFSA, you’ll need to sign the certification statement that says you:
Aren’t in default on a federal student loan.
Don’t owe money on a federal student grant.
Will only use the money you receive for educational purposes.
Important FAFSA eligibility factors
There are some instances where you might not qualify for FAFSA or you might have limited eligibility:
You don’t add any schools: The FAFSA requires you to list any colleges or career schools you’ve applied to or plan to apply to, even if you haven’t been accepted yet. Some states require a specific order of schools to receive state aid, so you’ll need to check your state’s requirements when applying.
You have a criminal history: If you’re currently in a federal or state institution, you don’t qualify for the Federal Pell Grant or federal student loans. If you were incarcerated for a drug-related offense or involved in an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, you’ll have limited eligibility. For instance, if the drug offense was committed while you were receiving federal aid, your eligibility could be suspended. But that suspension can be lifted after you complete an approved drug rehabilitation program or pass two unannounced drug tests.
Your dependency status also matters. While you can get financial aid whether you’re a dependent or not, your dependency evaluates whose personal and financial information is reported on your FAFSA form. As a dependent student, you report yours and your parent’s information. As an independent student, you report just your information (unless you’re married, in which case you’ll also report your spouse’s information).
Even if you aren’t eligible for federal aid, completing the FAFSA form gives you access to state and school funding that doesn’t have the same limitations.
Additional considerations: How you could lose eligibility
In some instances, you could lose your financial aid. This could happen if:
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 forgot to renew. The FAFSA requires you to complete the 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. Remember that the earlier you apply, the more you could receive based on your EFC.
Your family’s income went up. The more your family makes, the higher your EFC is and the lower your federal aid will be.
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 they went into default. This is most applicable to graduate, professional and returning students who have taken out loans before.
You have a drug-related 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.
The bottom line
While the FAFSA covers most students who have financial need, everyone who applies must meet a few requirements first. Along with that, you’ll need to reapply every year in order to continue receiving funds to cover your college costs.
Remember that some people might not qualify for student loans, like those who have defaulted on old loans or have been convicted of a drug-related offense. And if you’re currently in a federal or state institution, you’re not eligible to get federal financial aid.
As you get ready to complete the FAFSA, make sure that you meet all the requirements and have the necessary paperwork before getting started. Also make sure that your parents are ready to complete the form as well. The earlier you apply, the more money you can receive.
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