Financial Aid: Completing the FAFSA®
The first step in the financial aid process is to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This application, which is available to complete online (preferred method) or in paper format, will use income, assets and other factors to determine the amount you and your family are expected to contribute to your college expenses. Most of the questions are demographic-related and the rest of the answers come from your tax forms and/or those of your parents (if you’re a dependent student) or your spouse (if you are married). If you file the FAFSA online (FAFSA on the Web), you can list as many as ten different colleges that you may be attending and have information sent to them (only four colleges can be listed on the paper FAFSA). Your eligibility for financial aid will be determined by your and your family’s financial situation, and by filing your application on time.
How and When to File
If you are applying for financial aid to attend college during an academic year that starts on or after July 1, 2017, please note that the FAFSA will be available to complete sooner than in prior years, allowing applicants to report earlier tax information. With the new schedule, the 2017-18 FAFSA will become available on October 1, 2016 (under the prior schedule, the application would not have been available until January 1, 2017). In addition, students (and parents, as necessary) will report their 2015 income information* on the 2017-18 FAFSA (rather than their 2016 income information, which would have been required under the prior system). Further details are provided at the FAFSA Changes for 2017–18 page of the Federal Student Aid (FSA) website.
For the 2016-17 academic year, fill out your FAFSA as soon after January 1, 2016 as possible.* Although some taxpayers may need to delay the filing of their tax returns, families in this situation are encouraged to complete the FAFSA with estimated tax information so as not to delay its filing. You can complete the FAFSA online or a paper application.
For the quickest results, apply online. In order to submit your application online, you must obtain an FSA ID from the U.S. Department of Education. Applicants who have not been assigned an FSA ID prior to completing the FAFSA online will have three options:
- Apply for and obtain an FSA ID: for step-by-step instructions, refer to the FSA document entitled How to create an FSA ID.
The applicant's FSA ID data will undergo a match with the Social Security Administration (SSA). If the SSA match is successful, the FSA ID will become permanently valid (and may be used for signing FAFSAs in subsequent years). If the SSA match fails, the FSA ID will be disabled and the applicant will be sent a paper Student Aid Report (SAR) requesting all required signatures.
- Print a signature page: applicants who do not obtain an FSA ID but do have access to a printer can generate a signature page. The signature page must be signed and immediately mailed to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If the completed signature page is not received by ED within 14 days, a SAR will be mailed to the applicant. The SAR must then be signed and returned to ED.
- Process without signature: the FAFSA can be submitted without an FSA ID or printed signature page - however, this will result in the application being rejected due to a missing signature. The applicant will receive a SAR in the mail, and the SAR must be signed and returned to ED. Because it will delay the processing of the application, this is the least desirable option.
If the Web is used, it's recommended that you review the "Getting Started/Before You Apply" option of the Browse Help function at the FAFSA on the Web site. The FAFSA on the Web Worksheet (which can be accessed via the Resources page of Federal Student Aid's StudentAid.gov) may be used to prepare for completing the FAFSA online. The Worksheet presents questions in the same order they appear at FAFSA on the Web (which is different than the order of questions on the paper FAFSA).
An Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) allows you to view and/or securely transfer information directly from the IRS database into FAFSA on the Web, which minimizes data entry time, improves accuracy, and reduces the need for corrections. In order to utilize this function for the 2016-17* and/or 2017-18* application cycles, you must have filed a 2015 federal tax return, have a valid Social Security number, have an FSA ID, and not have changed your marital status after December 31, 2015. The IRS DRT may be used by student applicants filing an initial or renewal FAFSA, parents of dependent students filing an initial or renewal FAFSA, and applicants who are making corrections to their FAFSA. If you are ineligible or otherwise choose not to use the IRS DRT to retrieve tax information, your college may require a copy of your IRS Tax Return Transcript (or your parents’ IRS Tax Return Transcript, if you are a dependent student). Students and parents using the Spanish FAFSA on the Web will be linked to a Spanish version of the IRS resource.
If you are unable to complete the FAFSA online, but do have Internet access, you may download a PDF version of the FAFSA via the FAFSA Filing Options page of the FAFSA on the Web site. You may complete the PDF version of the FAFSA on the computer or by hand, then mail it to the address provided on the document. You may also request a paper FAFSA by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) toll-free at 800.4FEDAID (800.433.3243).
If you or your parents need help completing your FAFSA, be wary of hiring a consultant. It may not be wise to pay for a service that’s free of charge elsewhere, and sometimes these services are simply scams. Each year, colleges and other community sites hosts College Awareness & Preparation events, which are free to the public. Most events feature FAFSA Workshops with financial aid professionals available to answer any financial aid questions and help you complete your FAFSA—at no charge. Be sure to bring your tax forms, and your parents’ tax forms if you’re a dependent student, to any workshop you attend.
* Due to the transition to the use of earlier tax year information, 2015 tax data must be reported when completing both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 FAFSAs. It is very important for applicants and parents who are eligible to do so to use the IRS DRT for their 2016-17 FAFSAs, either when initially completing their FAFSA online or later by using the FAFSA online correction process. They should once again use the IRS DRT when completing their 2017-18 FAFSAs. Using the IRS DRT for both FAFSA years will help foster a smooth application process by dramatically reducing the likelihood of there being conflicting information on the FAFSAs for the two years. 2016-17 and 2017-18 are the only two FAFSA years that will use the same year’s tax data (2015) – 2016 tax data will be reported on the 2018-19 FAFSA, 2017 tax data will be reported on the 2019-20 FAFSA, etc.
Once processed by the U.S. Department of Education, you will receive a summary of your FAFSA results, called a Student Aid Report (SAR). The colleges you listed on your FAFSA will also receive the results, in order to determine your financial aid eligibility and prepare a financial aid package for you. The information reported on the FAFSA is confidential and remains within the financial aid office; it is not shared campus-wide. You may be asked to submit documentation (like income tax returns) to the financial aid office at the college to verify the information reported on the FAFSA.