What's the FAFSA? And Why You Should Care
Completing the FAFSA will help you earn federal financial aid.
April 21, 2009
You must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if you want to apply for federal and state financial aid. Many colleges and universities, especially public institutions, also require the FAFSA. You must submit the FAFSA every year that you want aid.
Obtaining a FAFSA
The FAFSA is available in several formats, including online, PDF and paper versions.
The best option is to complete the web-based version of the FAFSA at www.fafsa.ed.gov, known as FAFSA on the Web. It includes step-by-step instructions for completing the online FAFSA as well as preapplication worksheets. You can obtain a PIN to electronically sign the form by visiting www.pin.ed.gov. If you have technical questions about using FAFSA on the Web, call 1-800-4-FED-AID.
FAFSA on the Web offers several benefits, including:
- You will get your Student Aid Report (SAR) sooner than with the paper or PDF forms.
- Your FAFSA will be more accurate, since the FAFSA on the Web has built-in edit checks to catch simple errors and you avoid errors introduced by the OCR process.
- You will save the federal government money by reducing their processing costs.
- The online FAFSA allows you to list up to ten colleges, while the paper FAFSA has space only for four colleges.
Most families complete the FAFSA online these days.
PDF format FAFSAs are available in black and white and color versions in both English and Spanish. These versions of the FAFSA may be printed using the free Adobe PDF Reader software. Starting with the 2008-2009 academic year, the PDF FAFSAs may be submitted for processing by mail. The PDF version will normally be available starting November 15 of each year.
Paper versions are no longer bulk-distributed to high schools, colleges and libraries, with a few exceptions. (The exceptions involve organizations that work with underrepresented populations and students that do not have access to the Internet or a phone.) However, students may obtain up to three copies of the paper version by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3242) or 1-391-337-5665. (Hearing impaired individuals should call the TTY number 1-800-730-8913.) Paper FAFSAs can be ordered starting November 1 of each year.
Note that the FAFSA may not be submitted before January 1, even if the paper and PDF versions are available sooner.
FinAid’s Financial Aid Estimation Form may be used to calculate your EFC and an estimate of your eligibility for financial aid. This may help you understand a bit about how the federal need analysis system works. You can also run “what-if” experiments to see how much aid you’ll get under various scenarios. FinAid also has a QuickEFC calculator that uses much fewer questions to yield a ballpark estimate of your EFC.
Like FinAid’s EFC calculator, the US Department of Education’s FAFSA4CASTER tool also provides an early estimate of financial aid eligiblity. It is similar to FAFSA on the Web, but omits a handful of questions (e.g., drug conviction, selective service, parent education level, list of colleges, signatures). The FinAid tool provides more detailed analysis and more detailed aid eligibility information, but FAFSA4CASTER will potentially be linked with FAFSA on the Web for prefilling the answers to some of the FAFSA questions.
This article originally appeared on FinAid.org.