Free Application for Federal Student Aid (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
Fill out your FAFSA as soon after January 1 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. Before you submit your application online, you are encouraged to complete the process to receive a Personal Identification Number (PIN) from the U.S. Department of Education. Applicants who have not been assigned a PIN prior to completing the FAFSA online will have three options:
- Have PIN issued in real-time: a PIN issued in real-time is valid temporarily, for the purpose of signing the FAFSA. The applicant's PIN data will undergo a match with the Social Security Administration (SSA). If the SSA match is successful, the PIN will become permanently valid (and may be used for signing FAFSAs in subsequent years). If the SSA match fails, the PIN 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 have a PIN 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 a PIN 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 optional Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Data Retrieval tool 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 2014-15 application cycle, you must have filed a 2013 federal tax return, have a valid Social Security number, have a Federal Student Aid PIN, and not have changed your marital status after December 31, 2013. The IRS Data Retrieval tool 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. Students and parents using the Spanish FAFSA on the Web will be linked to a Spanish version of the IRS site.
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. During January and February of 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.
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.