What Is the FAFSA and How Does It Work?

Whether you’re a student applying to college or a parent helping your child pay for college, you’ve probably heard that you should complete the FAFSA. But what is the FAFSA? And how does it work?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has always been controversial. Many parents think there's no point in filling it out because they believe their child won't qualify for need-based financial aid. Other parents think it's too confusing and complicated.

While these opinions are valid, one thing remains true: the FAFSA is your best shot at graduating college with as little debt as possible.

Erika Taught Me

  • The FAFSA is a form you must complete if you want to be eligible for any kind of federal financial aid.
  • Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for need-based aid, you should still complete the FAFSA for other types of support.
  • The FAFSA deadline depends on both your school and your state. Fill it out early for the best chance of getting funding.

. . .

What Is the FAFSA? 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form that students and parents must complete and submit to be eligible for any kind of federal financial aid, such as student loans, grants, and work-study. 

The FAFSA is commonly required for many state-based grants and some third-party scholarships, especially scholarships with a need-based component.

Many scholarship providers also require the FAFSA because they want to ensure you have maximized your financial aid opportunities.

The FAFSA is not required for private student loans. 

READ MORE: Federal vs. Private Student Loans: What’s the Difference?

What is the disadvantage of not filing the FAFSA?

The biggest mistake that students and families make is not filling out the FAFSA because they assume they won't qualify for any financial aid. However, as long as you meet basic criteria, you should submit the FAFSA. 

That’s because federal student loans are only given to students who complete the FAFSA, and these loans don’t have an income or net worth cutoff. Even a millionaire’s child will qualify for student loans if they complete the FAFSA.

There is no limit to how many times you can fill out the FAFSA. However, there is a limit to how much federal financial aid you can receive. 

There is no fee to submit the FAFSA.

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How Does the FAFSA Work?

When you complete the FAFSA, the government will calculate your student aid index, the SAI. This number determines how much financial aid you qualify for. 

Even though the FAFSA looks at your financial information, it does not check your credit.

The higher your SAI number, the less aid you'll qualify for. If your SAI is below a certain number, then you will qualify for need-based aid. Those with extremely low SAIs will receive the maximum amount of need-based aid.

How often do I need to submit the FAFSA?

Many students incorrectly assume that the FAFSA is a one-and-done process. However, the FAFSA is only used to help determine financial aid eligibility for the specific year that you applied. 

For example, let's say you fill out the FAFSA for your freshman year of college. If you don’t fill out the FAFSA again for your sophomore year, you will not receive more financial aid.

FAFSA results can change depending on your financial situation. For example, if one of your parents is laid off, then you will likely receive more financial aid. 

However, the reverse is also true. If you receive a massive windfall, then you may qualify for less financial aid than in previous years. Also, if you become an independent student, then you may receive more financial aid.

There have also been changes to the FAFSA that will affect your calculations. For example, if you have siblings who are also in college, that will no longer be included as a factor.

READ MORE: How To Apply for a Student Loan

Who Is Eligible for the FAFSA?

Most students are eligible to submit the FAFSA, however, you do need to be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and you must have a high school degree, GED, or equivalent diploma.

Also, you must attend an accredited school. This doesn’t mean only four-year schools — community colleges, trade schools, and vocational schools may still be eligible.

You must also have a Social Security number unless you are a resident of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau. 

Your parents are not required to be citizens for you to complete the FAFSA. Students with DACA status are not eligible for federal financial aid, but can still qualify for scholarships and some state grants. 

If the school you're attending or interested in attending is not FAFSA-eligible, it’s a good sign that you should avoid that school. Schools that are not accredited often have the worst graduation and employment rates. 

Is there a GPA requirement for the FAFSA?

There is no minimum high school GPA to qualify for federal financial aid. However, that changes once you’re in college.

You will only remain eligible for federal financial aid if you are making Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), which usually means maintaining a minimum 2.0 GPA. 

If your GPA drops below that, then you may lose access to financial aid. However, you can get financial aid back by improving your grades.

Does the FAFSA cover part-time students?

Yes, part-time students will still qualify for financial aid and should always fill out the FAFSA. 

And even though part-time students may receive less financial aid than full-time students, it's still worthwhile to complete the FAFSA.

However, if you drop below part-time status, you will not qualify for most types of financial aid. Students who are only attending school part-time should always double-check before they drop a class mid-semester.

Should graduate students fill out the FAFSA?

Graduate and professional students should still submit the FAFSA. Even though they may receive fewer scholarship or grant opportunities, they can qualify for more federal student loan funding than undergraduate students.

The only reason not to submit the FAFSA is if you're not legally allowed to fill it out. Otherwise, you should always complete the FAFSA.

Can I fill out the FAFSA without my parents?

If your parents are not willing or able to help you fill out the FAFSA, then there is a spot on the form where you can indicate that.

Unfortunately, not having your parents’ help means you will not be eligible for need-based aid. But you may still qualify for federal student loans, which are always better than private student loans.

Many students run into the problem that their parents are not contributing to their college, but their income and assets are still counted toward the student’s SAI figure. Unfortunately, there is no way to change this on the FAFSA. The only time your parents' assets and income will not be included in the calculations is if you're an independent student.

To qualify as an independent student, you must meet one of the following criteria:

  • 24 or older
  • Married
  • Attending a professional or graduate school
  • Veteran or current member of the military
  • Orphan or ward of the court
  • Have legal dependents other than a spouse
  • Emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

Even if you are completely estranged from your parents, you can still be classified as a dependent student. If this is the case, you can write a letter to your school's financial aid department and explain your situation. There may be some additional scholarship opportunities, but this depends on your school.

Independent students may qualify for more financial aid, especially student loans.

READ MORE: 11 Ways to Get Paid to Go to School and Graduate Debt-Free

What Is the FAFSA Deadline?

The FAFSA deadline depends on both your school and your state. 

Each school has its own financial aid deadline, which is usually sometime in the spring. The financial aid deadline for a school may be later than the general application deadline. 

States also have their own deadlines, which can vary. For example, California’s deadline was March 2 for the 2024-25 school year, while Texas’s deadline was April 15, 2024.

However, you shouldn't simply use the FAFSA deadline as your personal deadline. Many grants and scholarships are only available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Filling out the FAFSA early may benefit you. 

For example, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) has limited funds — delaying could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Also, work-study spots are limited, which is another reason to submit your FAFSA sooner rather than later.

If you delay submitting the FAFSA, then there’s a higher chance you won’t receive as much financial aid as you would have by completing it sooner. 

Try to submit the FAFSA as soon as you can.

Do you apply for FAFSA before or after acceptance?

You should submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after the most recent version becomes available. This is usually around October 1 of the year before the coming school year. 

For example, for the 2024-2025 school year, the FAFSA was open on October 1, 2023. If you wait to submit the FAFSA until the school has admitted you, you may miss the financial aid deadline.

How long does it take to complete the FAFSA?

Filling out the FAFSA can take around an hour, depending on if you can connect your IRS account. If you don’t have your financial information though, it can take some time to track down those details and complete the form. 

It can then take a few weeks to get your results. 

FAFSA FAQs

Does the FAFSA have to be paid back?

The FAFSA only refers to the form you complete, not the type of financial aid you receive. In general, you have to pay back federal student loans, but you don’t have to repay any grants or scholarships you may receive. 

However, if you drop out before your semester ends, you may be required to pay back any grants or scholarships you received. If you don’t repay those funds, then you may have trouble qualifying for financial aid in the future if you return to school. 

How many FAFSA applications can I submit?

You can only submit a FAFSA once per academic year. If your or your parents’ financial situation changes after you submit the FAFSA, you can contact the school’s financial aid office and let them know.

Can I appeal my FAFSA results?

After submitting the FAFSA, you’ll get a letter from each school’s financial aid department detailing how much aid you qualify for. If you disagree with these results, you can file an appeal.

To boost the odds of a successful appeal, you should try to include documentation or proof that you can’t afford the cost of attendance. 

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is a college financial aid form that some schools use instead of the FAFSA. Some scholarships will also ask for the CSS Profile instead of or in addition to the FAFSA.

The CSS Profile is much less common. However, you may still run into it, depending on the schools you apply to. 

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile comes with an application fee. However, this fee can be waived if your and your family’s income falls below certain thresholds.

What if I make a mistake on the FAFSA?

If you made a mistake on the FAFSA and have already submitted it, you can correct the form by logging onto your FSA profile. The StudentAid.gov website explains how to fix an error.

How many schools can I send the FAFSA to?

When you’re filling out the FAFSA, you can select which schools you want to receive the results. You can pick a maximum of 10 schools when you first submit the FAFSA. However, you can send the FAFSA results to more schools as soon as the Student Aid Report is completed.

TL;DR

The FAFSA is an important form to fill out. Even if you think you won’t qualify for need-based aid, you might still need it for other programs, like scholarships or work-study.

You’ll need to complete it every year, as it’s only good for the coming school year that you apply for. While you can only submit it once per year, you can re-submit if your financial situation changes, like if a parent loses their job.

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I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

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Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.