If you are applying for colleges or are already in school, then you probably know that you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
It’s the gateway to all federal financial aid, including grants and federal student loans. By filling it out, colleges know what your financial situation is and can create a financial aid package that helps cover the costs of college.
Your financial need is determined by several factors, including the information you enter into the application about your financial situation and that of your parents if you’re a dependent student.
It’s important to be accurate because those numbers determine how much you can get from the FAFSA.
How Much Financial Aid Will I Get?
Federal aid comes in three types: grants, student loans, and work-study programs.
Grants are money you don’t need to pay back and are one of the best types of aid to be awarded because they’re “free” money for school. They’re need-based, which means they’re only offered to students who demonstrate financial inability to go to school without them.
The maximum Pell Grant amount you can receive for the 2019-20 school year is $6,195. Other grants offered by the federal government can total up to $4,000 each.
Federal work-study programs allow students to work at jobs on or off campus and the money earned can be used for educational or living expenses while attending.
Work-study programs are flexible, work around class schedules, and are only part-time. They could include tutoring other students, serving or prepping food in the cafeteria, acting as a monitor in the campus computer lab, or a host of other things.
In some cases, you could get a work-study job related to your major, leading to an even richer educational experience that also helps pay for itself. Work-study doesn’t have a maximum awarded amount; it’s wholly dependent on the individual student’s situation.
Federal Student Loans
Federal student loans are typically offered to all students, regardless of whether they have financial need or not.
There are two types of Direct Stafford Loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. The government will pay accrued interest on subsidized loans – which are offered to students with financial need – while students are in school and during periods of deferment, but not with unsubsidized loans.
Each type of federal student loan has its own maximum amount depending on your academic year and dependency status. For example, first-year undergraduates that are dependent on their parents (as defined by the FAFSA) have a limit of $5,500, with no more than $3,500 being subsidized.
There are also maximum aggregate amounts that you should be aware of. Direct Unsubsidized Loans, for instance, are capped at an aggregate of $31,000 for dependent students.
There are also loans specifically designed for graduates and parents of students: Grad PLUS Loans and Parent PLUS Loans. There are no set limits on these types of loans besides the maximum cost of attendance minus any other financial aid received.
Once you max out your scholarships, grants, savings, and federal student loans, the next step would be to consider private student loans.
What is the Maximum Amount of Money the FAFSA Gives?
Regardless of each program’s stated maximum, the most federal aid you can get is the cost of attendance for the school of your choice. If your school’s tuition, books, room and board, and assorted fees total $30,000 per academic year, for instance, then that is the most you can receive.
Your school, based upon your FAFSA, will determine the best combination of the various financial aid types to cover as much of the cost as possible. Anything not covered is your responsibility to get funding for, whether that be from a job you hold during school, third-party scholarships and grants, or private student loans.
It also matters where in your education you currently are. Students in graduate school can sometimes get more money than those in undergraduate; grad school typically costs more money, and most students need more help.
Many grad students, however, are already working in their chosen career fields and are making more money than their undergraduate counterparts. They’re also often independent for the purposes of financial reporting and therefore cannot count on funds from their parents or other family members.
Undergraduates, on the other hand, are often still somewhat financially dependent on their parents for money for school and living expenses. The FAFSA takes that into account when it asks you to report your parents’ cash balances, expecting a bigger contribution from them than independent students.
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With so many different programs—and rules that often change each year—it can be confusing to know how much you can get from the FAFSA.
Thankfully, a tool exists that can help you project how much federal financial aid you’d qualify for. It’s called FAFSA4caster, and it’s available on the FAFSA.edu.gov website.
The FAFSA4Caster can help you get a general idea of what to expect in terms of financial aid offerings. The best advice to maximize your federal student aid, however, is to fill out the FAFSA honestly, completely, and early. Colleges only receive a set amount of money to hand out to students, so your best bet is to be one of the first students in line for financial aid.