The FAFSA: What is It?

The FAFSA is an abbreviation for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and it is a form that is prepared annually by prospective and current college or university students which determines their eligibility for financial aid. The application, despite the word 'federal' in its name, determines student eligibility for the nine federal student aid programs, 605 state financial aid programs, and much of the institutional (college or organizational) student aid available.

The United States Department of Education administers the FAFSA and starts accepting the application January 1 for the upcoming academic year, which means that the application period is 18 months. Just because there are 18 months to complete the form does not mean that you should take that long, as most financial aid programs are awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Applicants who have already submitted a FAFSA previously can submit a renewal FAFSA which eliminates the need to fill out the entire document again.

What is in the FAFSA?

The FAFSA consists of at least 130 questions for the 2010-2011 school year. These questions have to do with a students’ (and his or her family's) income, assets, and dependency. Questions range from family size and income to family military background. The results of these questions are used to determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is the amount of money that the FAFSA decides a student's family can contribute to their child's education. This methodology assumes that parents will contribute to their children's education, regardless if they actually will or not. The FAFSA does not ask questions which relate to race, ethnicity, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.

Receiving Your Information

Upon completion of the FAFSA, students are sent a Student Aid Report (SAR). This is a summary of their responses and a report of their expected family contribution. It is important for students and their families to review this document carefully for errors as it is forwarded to their intended colleges or university and used for financial aid processing and awards.

Eligibility for Financial Aid

In order to qualify for financial aid the student must fulfill the following criteria in addition to the FAFSA:

  • be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or eligible non-citizen
  • have a valid Social Security number
  • have a high school diploma or GED
  • be registered with the U.S. Selective Service (for male students ages 18-25)
  • not owe refunds on any federal student grants
  • not be in default on any student loans
  • not be found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while federal aid is being received
Types of Financial Aid

The FAFSA awards a number of different types of financial aid. The most common forms of aid are:

  • Pell Grant - a grant up to $5,550 for students with low expected family contributions
  • Stafford Loans - a loan with interest set at 6.8% which can either be subsidized which means the government pays the interest on it while the student is enrolled in a college or university or unsubsidized and the student is responsible for paying the interest
  • Perkins Loans - a loan like the Stafford but lent directly by Title IV eligible schools
  • Federal Work Study Program - a program that grants students part-time jobs while they are enrolled in college or university to fund their education


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