Understanding FAFSA

02/05/24 | 7 MIN READ

FAFSA is the Free Application for Student Aid and the largest financial aid provider for college students in the United States.

The FAFSA application process involves reporting your financial information to the Federal Department of Education which is used to determine your eligibility and financial aid award for federal and state aid. It works by using your FAFSA information, which is shared with the colleges and/or career schools that the applicant self-reports on the application. The federal government will then use the FAFSA application to award you a need-based award at the federal level. Then, your information will go to your state higher education agency, as well as to agencies of the states where your chosen schools are located. Selective states have financial aid funds that give out additional aid and grants based on FAFSA information. The financial aid office at the school will also use your FAFSA information to figure out how much aid you may receive at that school. 

Please note that the school might require additional forms that you have to fill out to be considered for school aid or receive your aid in full. In case your school requires paperwork check with the financial aid office. Most schools have a financial aid portal to communicate this information with you.

Before walking through the FAFSA application, there are basic qualifications that the applicant needs to apply and stay eligible.Understanding FAFSA 1 (1)

Read More 🔬: Financing as a College Student


To qualify as a FAFSA recipient the applicant must have financial support for need-based aid, be a U.S. Citizen, or be an eligible noncitizen, and most importantly must be enrolled in an accredited degree or certificate program through an eligible college or trade school. Other basic eligibility requirements are noted below. 

  • Valid Social Security Number 
  • Maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress 
  • Provide consent and approval to have your federal tax information transferred directly into your 2024–25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form
  • Not in default on a federal student loan
  • Do not owe money on a federal student grant
  • Certify you will only use federal student aid for educational purposes
  • Show you’re qualified to obtain a college or career school education
    • High school diploma or GED certificate 
    • Enrolled in a career pathway program

In the case that you are a non-U.S. citizen you may be eligible if you fall into any of the additional categories noted.

  • U.S. National: Natives of American Samoa or Swains Island
  • U.S. permanent resident (who has an I-151, I-551 or I-551C [Permanent Resident Card]),
  • The individual who has an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing one of the following designations:
    • "Refugee" 
    • "Asylum Granted" 
    • "Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)"
    • "Conditional Entrant" (valid only if issued before April 1, 1980) 
    • Victims of human trafficking, T-visa (T-2, T-3, or T-4, etc.) holder 
    • "Parolee" (At  least one year and evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose and intend to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.) 

StudentAid.gov Account

To begin filling out FAFSA, a student aid account is needed. When you create an account you will need 1) A social security number, 2) Your government full name, 3) An email and phone number, 4) Your birthday, and 5) A username and password. The information provided must be reported exactly how it appears on your government-issued documents (social security card and birth certificate). 

Application Information/Documents

After creating your account, the process will now allow the option to start a new FAFSA application for the respective year you choose to apply. As an applicant, you can choose to either start a new application as a student preparer or have someone fill out the application on your behalf as a parent preparer or another individual granted permission. No matter who is filling out the application and providing the requested information, the application is the same. The preparer of the application will need to provide their college(s), dependency status, parent information, and financial information. 

Understanding FAFSA 2 (1)

Listing Colleges 

The FAFSA application requires you to list your colleges or technical schools, depending on where you will or are currently pursuing your next-level career education. As a future first-year college student you should list every school that you intend to apply to, regardless if you are accepted or not. Providing the Federal Department of Education with a list of schools you intend to pursue your future can help the schools provide a better estimate of your financial aid award. For most, if not all, the student’s need-based financial award can drastically impact the school they choose. It is better to receive your acceptance and understand your estimated award than not knowing what your potential cost of attendance will be for the academic year. 

Suppose the applicant is a current student seeking financial aid or renewing their financial aid then the student should log in to the same studentaid.gov FAFSA application portal using either their username/email and password. Once you enter the portal, click on the FAFSA application for the respective year you are seeking aid and start a new application. For this application, it is assumed the student is pursuing a degree at the school they are currently attending. If that is the case, the student will only need to list and submit one school they attend. 

Determine Dependency Status 

On the FAFSA form, you also need to determine and submit your dependency status. The dependent status is determined by a list of questions asked in the FAFSA application. Based on your responses to the questions, the portal will consider you independent or dependent. Note that all graduate students are considered independent, regardless of their situation. For all other students, the following is a list of some questions that might be asked to determine if you are independent or dependent. The questions provided are a brief overview of possible questions that are considered, but should not be considered verbatim or an accurate conclusion on deciding whether or not you are considered a dependent.

  1. Are you 24 years of age? (Or a specific date will be provided “Born before Jan. 1, 2001.)
  2. As of today, are you married? (Answer “No” if you are separated but not divorced.)
  3. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? Or a veteran? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?) 
  4. Do you have children or other people (excluding your spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you now and between July 1, 2024, and June 30, 2025?
  5. At any time since you turned age 13, were you an orphan (no living biological or adoptive parent), a ward of the court, or in foster care?
  6. Are you or were you a legally emancipated minor, as determined by a court in your state of residence?
  7. At any time on or after July 1, 2023, were you unaccompanied and either (1) homeless or (2) self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

That being said, from the questions asked, if you answer “Yes” to any of the questions then you are considered an independent student. If you answer “No” to every question then you are considered a dependent student and must provide your parent’s personal and financial information on the FAFSA form.

Parent Information

As a dependent student, you need to provide proof about your parents or guardians and their financial situation. The individual claiming you as a dependent may be biological parents, adoptive parents, or your legal guardian. Whoever the applicant is dependent on, the student or parent (depending on who is filling out the FAFSA) is required to provide basic information that can help identify your parents and their financial circumstances. First, the parent is also required to create a studentaid.gov account. Their account serves as a link between the FAFSA form and access to the IRS information. The parent’s account will also make it easier for them to sign and certify the information that the student applicant submits. Information that must be provided includes the parent(s)/guardian(s) 1) social security number, 2) date of birth, 3) email address and phone number (optional), 4) relationship status (marriage, divorced, single, separated), and 5) citizenship status.

Read More 🔬: First-Generation Students

Financial Information

To accurately determine your parent’s financial circumstances, tax information, assets, marital status, state of residency, and family size are all factors used to determine aid. Documents the student should be prepared to submit and report include:

  • Tax returns
  • Records of child support received
  • Family size (number of all dependents reported to the IRS)
  • Current balances of cash, savings, and checking accounts
  • Net worth of investments, businesses, and farm

It is important to ensure that all the information is true and correct because they are federal documents. Failure to provide the correct information can result in the applicant being flagged, disqualified from FAFSA for the year, or even jail time if you purposely misrepresent your financial status. It is critical to provide information as accurately as you can with supporting documentation. 

Understanding FAFSA 3 (1)

Review/Correct FAFSA

In the case that you need to correct the information you reported or you want to review your FAFSA, you can always go back to your application. ​​Immediately, after submitting the FAFSA form, your application can be downloaded or edited. You can also check the status of your application on fafsa.gov. Go to the same site where you completed the application and log in to the portal with your username and password. When you access your application, it will show the status. The application will either show:

  • Processing: Your application is being processed. It typically takes three to five days, plus one additional business day before it is available to the schools you listed on the form.
  • Processed Successfully: Your application was processed successfully and no further action is needed.
  • Missing Signatures: Your application needs to include the required signature(s) to fully submit.
  • Action Required: Your application requires further action. Sometimes select students are chosen to prove their information, or they are flagged and asked to prove the information they submitted. To successfully have the hold removed and the application processed successfully, contact your school to resolve the issue. Often, the school might need supporting documentation or further information before determining your financial aid package.

In the case that action is required, your school will have an allotted time that they allow you to address the request, clarify the information, and receive your aid on time. If you resubmit your application with edits or corrections, the entire application will be reviewed again.

Student Aid Report 

After successfully submitting your FAFSA form, you will get a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is a document that summarizes your application, summarizes your federal student loans, estimates your eligibility for federal student loans and Pell Grant, and includes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is used to estimate your eligibility for aid as either a Pell Grant recipient, or federal student loan borrower (subsidized or unsubsidized), and whether you’ve been selected for verification.

The SAR will also have a four-digit Data Release Number (DRN). The DRN is located in the box on the top of each tab that contains the application receipt date, and the processed date. The DRN is only needed if you want to allow your college or career school to change certain information on your FAFSA form.

Your SAR may also contain a note indicating that you have been selected for verification. If you’ve been selected for verification, there will be an asterisk by your EFC. 

Accepting your Award

After being accepted at a college or career school that you listed on your FAFSA form the school calculates the aid offer and shows you a financial aid breakdown. Your award letter will tell you how much aid you’re eligible for at the school (“will award,” “conditional,” or “pending”), at what time (Fall, Winter, Spring), and the type of award (“Grant”, “Loan”, or “Scholarship”). The information about your award depends on when you apply and how the specific school schedules the awarding of aid.

Read More 🔬: Finding Scholarships


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