Financial Aid

Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate an understanding of financial aid options

Seal of the United States Department of EducationFederal student aid administered by the Department of Education covers college expenses like tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation. Aid can also help pay for other related expenses, like a computer and dependent care. Federal student aid may also be available for studying at a school outside the United States, whether you’re studying abroad or getting your degree from an international school.

Common federal financial aid can be broken into four categories:

  • Grants: A variety of federal grants are available, including Pell Grants. With some exceptions, grants don’t have to be repaid.
  • Scholarships: Scholarships are typically awarded using a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, academic achievement, departmental and community involvement, employment experience, areas of study, and financial need.
  • Work-Study Jobs: The Federal Work-Study Program allows you to earn money to pay for school by working part-time.
  • Student Loans: When you receive a student loan, you are borrowing money to attend a college or career school. You must repay the loan as well as interest that accrues. It is important to understand your repayment options so you can successfully repay your loan.

To access federal financial aid, you must first fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The process for doing so can be complicated, so let’s dive in!

A black woman stands at a whiteboard where she has written Who? How? When? Where? What? and Why?

When to File

You should file your FAFSA every year as early as possible, even if you only received student loans for the previous school year. According to[1]

  • Students who file the FAFSA during the first three months tend to get double the grants, on average, of students who file the FAFSA later in the year.
  • More than two million students who don’t file the FAFSA would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant—more than a third of non-applicants—and 1.2 million would have qualified for the maximum Federal Pell Grant.

A yearly planner focusing on the month of OctoberYou can file your FAFSA on or after October 1 of the calendar year prior to the academic year of enrollment. For example, to apply for financial aid for the 2022–2023 school year, you could file the FAFSA starting on October 1, 2021.

The last chance to file is no later than June 30 of the academic year or the last day of enrollment, whichever comes first. So the last date to file the 2021–2022 FAFSA  is June 30, 2022. You can technically go through your entire year at college before accessing the FAFSA form, but that’s not typically recommended.

This means that there may be two FAFSAs that can be filed at any one time, the FAFSA for the current academic year, and the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year. Make sure you are filing the correct one. During the overlap period, about 90% of students are applying for financial aid for the academic year that begins in the fall, not the current academic year.

If you plan on taking classes year-round, check with your school to determine which FAFSA application they use for summer sessions. For example, you may have filled out the 2021–2022 school year application, but if you take classes in August 2022, that may fall into the 2022–2023 school year depending on your school’s schedule.

Several states have FAFSA deadlines in December, January, February, and March, while other states award state grants on a first-come, first-served basis or until the money runs out. Some colleges have early deadlines, sometimes called priority deadlines, during which more institutional financial aid is available. Check the FAFSA website ( and consult with the financial aid offices of the colleges where you are applying.

FAFSA Application Timing

To summarize:

  • October 1, 2021: First date you can file your FAFSA for the 2022–2023 school year
  • Late spring, 2021: the 2020–2021 school year ends, but the 2020–2021 FAFSA is still available until June 30
  • Fall 2021: school year begins; financial aid is awarded based on your 2021–2022 FAFSA, but it’s also time to file your 2022–2023 FAFSA
  • Late spring 2022: school year ends—the last possible chance to access FAFSA is June 30, 2022

Even some federal student aid, such as campus-based aid, can be depleted. Each college gets a fixed allocation of Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS) funding. When the money is fully awarded, there is no more money available.

How to File

File your FAFSA online (or on the mobile version app called myStudentAid). The first step is to apply for your username and password (FSA ID). The student and parents should each get their own FSA ID. Do not share your FSA ID with anyone.

A man with a brown skin tone sits in front of a laptop. He is writing in a notebook.Most families can complete the FAFSA in 30–60 minutes, including the time needed to gather documents, such as Social Security numbers (for parents and the student), your family’s most recent financial account statements, and the student’s driver’s license number, among others. You may be able to use an IRS Retrieval Tool to download your prior-year tax information to the FAFSA.

You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) after you file the FAFSA. Sometimes the report is generated and made accessible immediately, but it can take up to a few weeks. Your SAR depends on the accurate completion and filing of your FAFSA. You will get faster results if you file online, sign the FAFSA with an FSA ID, and provide your email address on the FAFSA. The SAR provides an opportunity to correct errors on the FAFSA. The SAR also includes the expected family contribution (EFC), a measure of the family’s financial ability to pay for college.

The EFC is calculated using a federal financial aid formula called the federal need analysis methodology, which is based on the student and parent income and assets and various demographic questions. The financial aid formula is heavily weighted toward income and cash flow.

Financial aid funds, including federal student aid, are distributed through the college financial aid office. There may be an automatic 30-day delay for disbursement of student loan funds for first-time, first-year federal student loan borrowers. Financial aid is first applied to tuition and fees and if the student is living in college housing, then to room and board. Credit balances will be “refunded” to the student within 14 days and can be used to cover other college costs, such as textbooks and transportation.

If your total award doesn’t cover all your costs, you will need to find some other way to pay for the deficiency. In the following sections, we’ll discuss some of these options, like part-time jobs, private loans, savings accounts, scholarships, tax credits, and support from family members.

Getting Assistance

As the name suggests, the FAFSA is a free form. There is no need to pay anybody for help filing the FAFSA. Here are some ways you can get free help filling out the form:

  1. Students and parents who need help with the FAFSA can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). The FSAIC is a free hotline sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.
  2. In addition, The National College Access Network (NCAN) runs a website called Form Your Future that provides information about events where financial aid professionals provide free help completing the FAFSA.
  3. You can also send email to, but don’t include private personal information in the email message.
  4. Help information is also available.

For problems involving the FSA ID, students and parents can call 1-800-557-7394.

Individuals who are hearing impaired can call the FSAIC by TTY at 1-800-730-8913.

After You File

The US Department of Education will select some FAFSA forms for audit. As part of this verification process, you may be asked to provide documentation for some of the items on your application. Any data elements that are transferred from the IRS are not subject to verification, so if you used the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer information from your federal income tax returns into the FAFSA, you won’t have to provide copies of your W-2s and other tax information.

If your ability to pay for college is affected by special circumstances, such as a change in income or unusual family financial circumstances, you can appeal for more financial aid. Contact the college’s financial aid office for information about how to file an appeal.

Additional Resources

Try using the FAFSA4caster to estimate your eligibility for federal student aid.

Also, the Federal Student Aid Office of the Department of Education offers some resources to help you determine the costs of college.

Practice Questions

  1. What is the FAFSA? (Accessed May 19, 2020)