In an ideal world, a college education would be affordable enough that young adults wouldn’t need to turn to the government for federal student aid. But in 2018, 65% of graduating seniors had student loans, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
To even qualify to take out federal student loans, college students are required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called FAFSA for short. The FAFSA application is no joke, so resist the urge to push it off until the last minute. Here’s what to expect with the process for the FAFSA 2021 school year.
What is the FAFSA?
When you fill out and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, it provides your school with the necessary information to determine how much federal student aid you qualify for. In addition to student loans, this student aid package can also include grants and a work-study program.
Depending on your situation, your FAFSA can even go so far as to help you qualify for financial aid from your state and university.
The FAFSA application itself is relatively long and can take a little less than an hour to complete. Before you begin, however, make sure you have everything you need. That includes:
- Your driver’s license and Social Security number
- Your parents’ Social Security numbers and dates of birth, if applicable
- Your (and your parents’, if applicable) 2017 federal tax return, bank statements and W-2 forms
- Records of your (and your parents’, if applicable) untaxed income and assets, such as checking and savings account, investments and real estate
All of this information helps identify you and your family and also helps your school calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The financial aid office uses your EFC, along with your year in school, enrollment status and the total cost of attendance at the school to decide how much financial aid to provide.
When and how to complete your FAFSA application
Because the FAFSA is required to qualify for federal financial aid, as well as other forms of aid, it’s crucial that you submit it before the deadline. The federal FAFSA deadline for 2021 is June 30, 2021. So even if you’ve started the school year, you may still have time to get the aid you need.
Keep in mind, though, that state- and school-specific FAFSA deadlines may be earlier than the one set by the U.S. Department of Education. And in some cases, financial aid is given on a first-come, first-serve basis, so you’ll want to apply as soon as possible.
If you’ve already completed the FAFSA for the most recent school year, you’ll also have the chance to complete it for the 2021-2022 school year beginning on October 1, 2021.
Before you can start the FAFSA 2021 application, you’ll need to create a Federal Student Aid ID (Also called an FSA ID and even a FAFSA ID). The FSA ID is your username and password for select Department of Education websites. If your FAFSA requires that you also include your parents’ information, your parents will also need a FAFSA ID.
Note, however, that it can take up to three days in some instances to receive your ID, so the sooner you request it, the better. Neither parent nor child should create an ID for the other.
Once you receive your FAFSA IDs, visit fafsa.gov or use the myStudentAid mobile app to fill out and file your application. Alternatively, you can print out a paper application and mail it in.
After you complete it, you’ll get an email within three to five days with instructions on how to access your Student Aid Report (SAR). If you didn’t provide an email address, you’ll get a paper copy in the mail within 7 to 10 days. The SAR shows your answers to the questions on the FAFSA form and some basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid.
If you qualify for aid, your school will send you an award letter based on its own timeline. Check with your college’s financial aid office to know what you can expect.
What else to know about the FAFSA before you apply
Even if you know what’s expected of you as you fill out the FAFSA application, it’s natural to have lingering questions about the process. Here’s what you need to know.
There is no cost to fill out the FAFSA
The Department of Education doesn’t charge an application fee for the FAFSA, and if someone tries to charge you to help you fill it out, it may be a scam. If you have questions about the process, contact your school’s financial aid office to get free assistance.
Also, note that fafsa.gov and the myStudentAid mobile app are the only ways to submit your application. Avoid any other websites and mobile apps that claim to be authorized to do the same.
Apply even if you don’t think you’ll qualify or need it
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly a quarter of high school students don’t complete the FAFSA form. Among those, 65% either believe that they or their family can afford college without financial aid or they’re afraid they wouldn’t qualify.
But it’s always a good idea to apply whether or not you think you’ll need or qualify for aid. And keep in mind that the formula the Department of Education uses to determine your eligibility is complex, so the only way to find out if you’re eligible for financial aid is to apply. You’re not required to accept aid if you don’t need it.
You can apply even if you haven’t submitted an admissions application
Your school’s cost of attendance is one of the factors that helps determine your eligibility for financial aid. But you don’t need to know which school you’re attending yet to submit your FAFSA.
Simply list all of the schools you’re thinking about applying for, and their financial aid offices will receive your information.
The bottom line
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an important part of your college experience, and it’s necessary if you can’t afford to pay for school on your own. Even if you think you can, it’s still a good idea to apply just in case.
Before you apply, take some time to find out what information you’ll need, and plan to fill out the application as soon as possible.