The FAFSA is your all-purpose gateway to all federal student loans and other forms of financial aid for college.
The FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the nationally standardized application form used by the U.S. Department of Education for assessing a family's finances and its ability to support a student's post-secondary education. It is the cornerstone of the entire federal financial aid system for students attending colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions in America.
More importantly, you and your family cannot apply for any federal student aid, either federally guaranteed loans or grants, without completing the FAFSA form.
The FAFSA should be filed every year you’re in school after October 1 for a college term that begins that fall. The application can be accessed and filed online, at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Applicants and their parents can also check the status of their application and make corrections online.
After processing, the information collected from the FAFSA is shared with the applicant and their family, as well as with the financial aid offices of the institutions to which the student has applied and listed on their FAFSA.
Schools will use the information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for other types of financial aid provided by the federal government, from your state, or from the school itself. This aid can include grants, scholarships and work opportunities, so it’s important to file your FAFSA as early as possible.
The Student Aid Report (SAR), which is generated from completing the FAFSA, shows your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money your family will be expected to contribute towards your education. The lower your EFC, the more financial aid you may qualify for.
When investigating financial aid, don’t overlook campus-based aid. For many students, it can mean the difference between attending college or not.
Campus-based aid is a broad category of support funneled through the individual institution and administered by the school's financial aid office. It includes such forms of aid as work study, loans and grants:
The sooner you apply for these forms of financial aid, the better. You can apply by completing the FAFSA Form.
Financial aid packages outline all the financial support that a college or university can offer once you've been accepted for enrollment. They are a direct response to demonstrated financial need as outlined in your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Your financial aid package is generally quite detailed and full of information about any grants, loans, scholarships, work-study opportunities and other awards that can help defray the total cost of tuition, room and board and other fees.
Understanding this document is essential in helping you choose the right school, and the one that best fits the family budget. Compare and ask questions about anything that's unclear before the acceptance deadline.
Study your award letters closely. There is no uniform format for these letters, and schools may use different terminology.
After you've reviewed your financial aid package and determined how much financial aid is available, consider a private student loan to fill the remaining gap.