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) – including mobile-friendly options – 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, 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 PDF version of the FAFSA). Your eligibility for financial aid will be determined by your and your family’s financial situation, and by filing your application on time.
If you are an Illinois student who is not eligible for federal financial aid (and do not file the FAFSA), you may apply for a State of Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant using the online Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid. For more information, visit the Retention of Illinois Students & Equity (RISE) Act page of this website, and talk with your high school counselor or the financial aid office at your college or university. Note that the Alternative Application – which is patterned after the FAFSA – is now available for the 2020-21 academic year.
How and When to File the FAFSA
Students (and parents, as necessary) report their 2017 income information on the 2019-20 FAFSA, while 2018 income information is reported on the 2020-21.
Fill out your FAFSA as soon after October 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 by using 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 Creating and Using the 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 you file the FAFSA online, it's recommended that you review the Filling Out the FAFSA Form page at Federal Student Aid’s StudentAid.gov. 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 the online application (which may be different than the order of questions on the PDF version of the FAFSA).
An Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) allows you to securely transfer information directly from the IRS database into the online FAFSA, which minimizes data entry time, improves accuracy, and reduces the need for corrections. In order to utilize this function for the 2020-21 application cycle, you must have filed a 2018 federal tax return, have a valid Social Security number, have an FSA ID, and not have changed your marital status after December 31, 2018. The IRS DRT may be used by student applicants filing an initial or renewal FAFSA, as well as parents of dependent students filing an initial or renewal FAFSA. Information is also available for students and parents filing the online FAFSA in Spanish.
If you are ineligible or otherwise choose not to use the IRS DRT to retrieve tax information, and do not have access to your federal tax returns, you may file the FAFSA with estimated tax information and then request a summary of a previously-filed tax return (called an IRS Tax Return Transcript), using that data to correct/update the FAFSA. If the IRS DRT is not used, 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) in order to verify the tax data reported on the FAFSA. Tax transcripts may be ordered from the IRS as follows:
- Online – with the proper identity verification, tax transcripts may be viewed and downloaded from the IRS Get Transcript Online resource;
- By Mail – requests to have tax transcripts sent via the mail may be submitted to the IRS using their Get Transcript by Mail tool; and,
- By Phone – the taxpayer can call 1.800.908.9946, and a transcript will be delivered to the address of record within five to ten days.
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 section at Federal Student Aid's StudentAid.gov. 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.
After Filing the FAFSA
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.