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Student Loans


If you’re preparing for college, one of the first actions you should take is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Colleges use your FAFSA to check your eligibility for financial aid, including grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans. 

It’s one of your best shots at accessing “free” money to attend school. Without the FAFSA, you won’t be eligible for federal financial aid. Keep reading to find out more about the FAFSA, why it’s important to fill one out, and how you can complete yours.

Why do you need to complete the FAFSA? 

The FAFSA is your ticket to financial aid. Not completing the FAFSA every academic year essentially tells your school you intend to cover that year’s tuition on your own. If you want to be among the 85% of students who use financial aid, you must fill out the FAFSA.

When you complete the FAFSA, your school reviews your information to determine whether you qualify for financial aid, including:

Exhausting these tuition assistance options before turning to private loans is the key to minimizing your student loan debt and your out-of-pocket costs. 

Federal student loans can have lower interest rates than private student loans, even if you’re not eligible for grants or scholarships. They also offer more consumer protections.

An infographic explaining the FAFSA, why you need it, and important dates and information.

The open date for the FAFSA for the 2024 – 2025 school year was December 31, 2023, due to delays with the new rollout.

FAFSA dates & deadlines to remember

Not only is it important to fill out the FAFSA each year, but you’ll want to begin the submission process as soon as possible. Federal aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so procrastinating could cause you to miss out on money for school.

Here are a few important dates and deadlines to keep in mind:

Academic yearFAFSA opens onFAFSA deadline
2023 – 2024October 1, 2022June 30, 2024
2024 – 2025December 31, 2023June 30, 2025
2025 – 2026October 1, 2024*June 30, 2026

Many states and schools have earlier deadlines, however. Schools in Connecticut, for example, require students to submit their 2024 – 2025 FAFSA by March 15, 2024, for priority consideration. Your school’s financial aid website should list its FAFSA deadlines.

But what if you’re not sure where you’ll attend college? The FAFSA website allows you to send your FAFSA to up to 20 schools, so you don’t need to have your college plans solidified just yet.

Instead, check each prospective school’s FAFSA deadline and note the earliest one. Complete and send your FAFSA by that date for the best chance at receiving the most no- or low-cost aid. 


You’ll get financial aid award letters from schools that received your FAFSA and that offered you admission. Review and compare each one, as well as each school’s cost of attendance (COA), to help determine which college is most affordable.

What if I miss my school’s FAFSA deadline?

If you don’t complete the FAFSA by your school’s priority deadline for any reason, don’t worry. In the worst-case scenario, you might miss out on scholarships, grants, or work-study opportunities for that school year, but you’re not likely to miss out on financial aid altogether

It’s ideal to submit your FAFSA as early as you can, but you technically have the entire school year to do so—and submitting your FAFSA late is better than not submitting it at all. 

FAFSA eligibility criteria

Almost all students are eligible for some form of financial aid. However, students need to meet several requirements. To qualify for federal financial aid, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or eligible non-citizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number or A-number
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Be accepted to or enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Be enrolled at least half-time, if you’re already in school
  • Not be in default on a federal student loan
  • Not owe money on a federal student grant
  • Make satisfactory academic progress each year

Each school’s definition of satisfactory academic progress may be different. In general, you must maintain a high enough GPA and take enough classes to complete your program of study in a reasonable time frame.

Beginning with the 2021 – 2022 school year, students are no longer required to register for the Selective Service to be eligible for federal financial aid. Students with drug-related convictions are no longer barred from receiving federal financial aid.


You may still be eligible for grants or private student loans if you’re not a U.S. citizen. Check out our resources for DACA recipients and international students to explore your options.

As you complete the FAFSA, you may be required to enter your parents’ financial information. 

Your parents aren’t subject to the same qualifying criteria you are, but they must consent to having their federal tax information imported into your FAFSA form. Failure to do so will render you ineligible for federal financial aid. 

For your parents to apply for a Direct PLUS loan, they must be U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens. Neither you nor your parents need to meet income requirements to qualify for financial aid. 

How to complete the FAFSA 

Once you have ensured that you meet all the student financial aid eligibility criteria and know all the important deadlines, it’s time to start working on the FAFSA form.

Expect the process to take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. You don’t have to complete your FAFSA in one sitting, so take a break if you need to. You can pick up where you left off when you’re ready. Here are the steps to take.

Step 1: Gather your documents

Before you begin your application, make sure you have all the necessary information and paperwork. This includes your:

  • Social Security card​
  • Driver’s license
  • Current bank statements
  • Tax return from two years ago

It is crucial to have tax returns from the correct tax year. For instance, the 2024 – 2025 FAFSA uses information from your 2022 return, while the 2023 – 2024 FAFSA uses your 2021 return.

If you’re a dependent student, you’ll also need your parents’ tax returns and information about their assets. If you’re married and filed a joint tax return with your spouse, you’ll need their financial information.

Step 2: Enter or create your FSA ID

Every student needs an FSA ID to complete their application. The U.S. Department of Education recommends doing this as soon as possible to avoid any possible delays.

Your FSA ID is the username and password you’ll use to log into the Department of Education website. It will allow you to access information about your federal aid for years.

To enter or create your FSA ID, navigate to the FAFSA website and click “Start New Form.”

On the next screen, if you already have an FSA ID and password, go ahead and log in. Then, skip to step three. If you need an FSA ID, click “Create an Account.”

An image showing the account creation button on the FAFSA website.

After clicking “Create an Account,” you’ll see a screen that looks like this. Read the provided information, and when you’re ready, click “Get Started.”

An image of the FAFSA site displaying the Get Started button.

Next, you’ll start entering your information, beginning with your name, date of birth, and Social Security number. On the screens that follow, you’ll also register your email address and create a password.

Once that’s complete and you have an FSA ID, you’re ready to fill out the FAFSA.

Step 3: Verify your contact information

When you log in with your FSA ID and password, you may be asked to enter or verify your contact information. Make sure your email address and phone number are up to date. 

If you’re ever locked out of your account or need to reset your password, you’ll receive a security code to the email or phone number on file before you can regain access.

Step 4: Confirm whether you’re a student or a parent

The next screen asks whether you’re a student or a parent. If you’re completing the FAFSA as a student, select “Student.” If your parent later logs in to fill in their information, or if they’re completing the FAFSA for you, have them choose “Parent.”

A screenshot of a FAFSA form inquiring whether the student or parent is completing the FAFSA.

Then, click “Continue.”

Step 5: Learn FAFSA basics

Before you can fill out the FAFSA, you’ll see a few short paragraphs and videos that introduce it. This information will give you a better idea of how to complete it and what to expect after it’s submitted.

A screenshot showing a video that helps students understand the FAFSA.

After watching the videos and through the preliminary information, click “Start FAFSA Form.”

Step 6: Review your identifying and residency information

Next, you’ll see a list of your personal information, including your name and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Check that your information is correct, and click “Continue.”

On the next screen, enter your state of legal residence and the date you became a resident. Then, proceed to step seven.

In this step, you can either give your permission or decline for your tax return information to be retrieved and used for your FAFSA. 

You’ll see a quick summary at the top of the page, followed by more detailed information about how your tax information is obtained and a FAQ section at the bottom of the page.

After reading through the information, you can click “Approve” to give your consent and move forward with the FAFSA. If you decline to consent, you won’t be eligible for financial aid.

Step 8: Answer questions about your personal circumstances

Next, you’ll answer a series of questions about your personal circumstances, including:

  • Your marital status
  • What year you’re entering in school (freshman, sophomore, graduate student, etc.)
  • Your veteran status
  • Whether you’ve been in foster care
  • Whether you’re under the legal guardianship of someone other than a parent
A screenshot showing the student personal circumstances in which a student would show their status in school.

Once you’ve finished this section, you’ll see your dependency status. If you’re declared an independent student, you can complete the rest of the FAFSA by yourself. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need your parents’ financial information in addition to your own.

Step 9: Enter your demographic information

You’ll now move through a series of questions about your:

  • Gender identity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Citizenship status
  • Parents’ highest level of education

If you’re uncomfortable with reporting your gender or ethnicity, you can decline to answer those questions without affecting your financial aid eligibility.

You’ll also need to provide information about where you earned your high school diploma or GED. 

A screenshot showing that the FAFSA will ask student demographic questions.

Next, you’ll move on to the financial information portion.

Step 10: Report your financial information

This step is often the longest and most complex. Unlike in years past, the FAFSA no longer uses the IRS data retrieval tool. In theory, the consent you provided in step seven should import income data from your tax return.

However, many FAFSA filers report needng to fill in this information manually. That’s why it’s helpful to have your tax return ready, just in case. If you don’t already have those handy, now is a good time to track them down.

A screenshot showing that the FAFSA will determine ability to pay for school.

As you move through this section, you’ll share information from your tax return. If you’re a dependent student or you’re married and filed a joint return, you’ll provide information about your parents’ or spouse’s finances too. This information includes:

  • Whether you receive public assistance, such as SNAP or Medicaid
  • Whether you received the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
  • Whether you filed Form 1040 or 1040-NR
  • Your family size, which includes the student and the student’s dependents
  • Your tax filing status
  • Your adjusted gross income (AGI)

You’ll also report whether you received untaxed distributions from a retirement plan, how much you paid in federal income tax, and whether you had any capital gains or losses.

Many of the answers to these questions will come from your tax return. A tool built into the FAFSA tells you exactly where to look on your return to find the information you need. We recommend using it to ensure accuracy.

Step 11: Select your colleges

If you’ve made it to step eleven, hang in there. You’re almost finished with the FAFSA (until next year, anyway).

In the next-to-last step, you’ll designate which schools will receive your FAFSA. You can search by the state where the school is located or by the school’s unique code, which is available on your school’s financial aid website.

A screenshot showing how to search for schools in the FAFSA form to send FAFSA information.

Because you can add up to 20 schools, it’s smart to select every school you’re considering attending, even if you’re on the fence and even if you haven’t applied. 

You can always add and remove schools after completing your FAFSA, but if you wait to list a school, you could miss out on potential aid.

Once you locate your school, click “+” to add it to your list. When you’ve selected all applicable schools, continue to the next screen, where you’ll confirm your schools of choice.

Step 12: Review, sign, and submit

Now, it’s time to review your FAFSA. Double-check the information you’ve entered. If you catch any errors, correct them before finalizing your form. Otherwise, if everything looks good, click “Continue.”

After clicking “Continue,” read through the terms and disclosures. At the end of these disclosures, you’ll see a button that says you agree to the terms. Once you confirm your agreement, you can finalize and submit your FAFSA.

A screenshot of the congratulations for completing the FAFSA.

What happens after you submit the FAFSA?

Immediately after submitting the FAFSA, you’ll see a confirmation message. In addition to your completion date, this message also lists your:

  • Data release number (DRN): Think of this as a file number. If you need to call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC), you’ll have to confirm your DRN to update information such as your address or phone number.
  • Estimated Student Aid Index (SAI): This replaces the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) from years past. Your SAI doesn’t tell you how much aid you can get. Instead, colleges use it to assess the financial needs of eligible students.

Your confirmation message isn’t the final step in the financial aid process. Your school still needs to process your FAFSA. This can take three to five days. Here’s what you can expect during and after processing, as well as how to finalize your financial aid:

  • Your college may contact you to verify your information or request additional paperwork. These communications might come to your personal email address or to your school email if you have one.
  • You’ll get financial aid award letters from schools that received your FAFSA and that offered you admission. You can send your FAFSA to any school, whether you’ve applied or not, but you typically won’t receive an award letter until after you’ve been accepted.
  • Appeal your financial aid offer, if necessary. If you’re dissatisfied with a school’s aid offer, follow the appeal instructions on your award letter. Your school will reevaluate your financial aid and may restructure your aid package as a result.
  • Accept or reject your financial aid. Once you’ve decided where you’ll attend, you then must decide on your financial aid. You can reject all or some of your aid—say, if you’d rather use a payment plan instead of taking out loans—or you can accept your aid package as is.

Before you accept your financial aid, review your award letters to get an idea of what comprises your financial aid package at each school.

Were you awarded any grants or scholarships? How much of your financial aid consists of student loans? If you appealed your financial aid, how does your new award stack up to your previous offer?

When you’re ready to accept your financial aid, adhere to your school’s acceptance instructions. You may need to sign promissory notes or complete entrance counseling, for example. If you don’t complete all parts of the acceptance process, you may not be awarded aid.

How is the Student Aid Index (SAI) calculated?

The SAI is calculated using one of three formulas. Each formula considers the various income sources and assets available to a student. These could include wages, investments, retirement contributions, and business income.

Once these resources are added together, the formula then deducts certain expenses and allowances to account for how much of a family’s resources can realistically be used for school expenses.

Where the formulas differ is in whose financial information is factored into the equation. Here’s a breakdown of each formula, when each one is used, and whose resources it weighs:

FormulaStudent typeIncome used
Formula ADependentStudent and parent
Formula BIndependent without dependentStudent and spouse
Formula CIndependent with dependentsStudent and spouse

Another important difference between these formulas is the income protection allowance (IPA).

The IPA reduces a family’s income and resources based on an estimate of their annual basic living expenses. The IPA amount increases or decreases depending on the student’s family size. Students with no dependents (and thus use Formula B) cannot use the IPA. 

The table below summarizes which allowances and adjustments each formula takes into account:

Form. AForm. BForm. C
Payroll tax allowance
Business / investment farms adjustment
Asset protection allowance

For the 2024 – 2025 school year, the lowest possible SAI is -1500, and there’s no upper limit. Beginning with the 2025 – 2026 school year, the SAI floor will be 0. The closer your SAI is to –1500 (or 0, in subsequent years), the greater your financial need. 

Having a higher SAI doesn’t mean you won’t receive any financial aid. It just means you may be in a better position to pay for school without need-based aid, such as Pell Grants or work-study. You may still be eligible for other forms of aid, such as federal student loans.

Financial aid & FAFSA resources

Do you have more questions about filling out the FAFSA or financial aid in general? Check out our resources below:

General FAFSA information
Important FAFSA deadlines
FAFSA completion timeline and process
How often to file the FAFSA
How much money you can get
Filing the FAFSA when
You don’t live with your parents
Your parents are divorced
You don’t have a driver’s license
How to
Report your parents’ income
Report your spouse’s income
Calculate discretionary income
Add more schools to the FAFSA
Determine legal residency
Get student loans without the FAFSA