Your Guide to FAFSA and Eligibility Requirements for Financial Aid

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Before you can access financial aid for college, you’ll need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But who qualifies for the FAFSA, and what criteria do you need to meet before getting federal grants and loans?

This guide will go over what you need to know about FAFSA eligibility so you can tackle the financial aid process with confidence.

Qualifying for the FAFSA: basic eligibility requirements

Start by reviewing and understanding the basic eligibility criteria for federal financial aid. At minimum, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen (including a U.S. national or permanent resident) and have a valid Social Security number.
  • Have a high school diploma or GED certificate.
  • Be enrolled or accepted as a student in an eligible degree or certificate program.

If you’re unsure if you’re someone who qualifies for the FAFSA, check with a college counselor at your high school or reach out to the financial aid office at the colleges you’re interested in. For residents who aren’t U.S. citizens, for example, your eligibility might depend on your specific immigration or visa status.

Certain aid programs have additional qualifying criteria. To get federal direct student loans, for instance, you must be enrolled in school at least half-time. Some types of financial aid require you to show financial need, like direct subsidized loans, while others, such as direct unsubsidized loans, do not.

Submitting the FAFSA

To receive any type of federal financial aid, you must submit the FAFSA. You’ll provide details about your financial situation and family circumstances to verify your need and eligibility for financial aid. The FAFSA is available on Oct. 1 each year, and it’s best to fill it out as early as possible.

A FAFSA can be completed online on the Federal Student Aid website. If you live with your parents, or your parents are helping to pay for college, it may be helpful for them to sit down and complete the FAFSA form with you.

While the FAFSA may feel difficult to get through, once it’s complete you’ll be eligible to receive some of the $242 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds that the office of Federal Student Aid awards each year.

After you submit the FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report that will likely include your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which is the amount of money the government calculates that your family can contribute to college costs. Your EFC determines how much financial aid you’re eligible for.

The FAFSA includes a section where you must certify that:

  • You do not hold any federal student loans currently in default, or have made arrangements to repay loans in default.
  • You do not owe any funds on a federal student grant.
  • You agree to use federal student aid exclusively for educational expenses.

If you don’t meet those FAFSA eligibility requirements, you likely won’t qualify for financial aid. However, you can work to rehabilitate federal student loans and repay federal grants you owe to regain eligibility.

Maintaining satisfactory academic progress

If you’re already in college, you must maintain satisfactory academic progress (SAP) in order to continue receiving financial aid. In other words, the federal government requires students to work toward a degree and maintain certain grades. Each school has an SAP policy; ask your school’s financial aid office about the one you must adhere to. An SAP may require you to:

  • Earn a minimum GPA.
  • Receive a certain percentage of attempted credits.
  • Stay on track to complete your degree within a specified time frame.

If you lose eligibility due to unsatisfactory academic progress, you can work to regain it through an SAP appeal explaining any extenuating circumstances, such as illness or a family crisis. But in general, maintaining good grades, attending classes and staying on track for graduation are all elements not just of graduating as planned, but also of keeping your financial aid.

Demonstrating financial need

The Office of Federal Student Aid uses the information from your FAFSA to determine your financial need. Your financial need is calculated by subtracting your EFC from your school’s cost of attendance.

Even if you don’t have financial need, it’s still worth submitting the FAFSA to access low-rate federal student loans, which you’ll learn more about below. But if you do have financial need, you could additionally qualify for need-based aid such as:

  • Federal Pell grants: This aid helps cover educational costs for students who demonstrate “exceptional financial need” and don’t already have a bachelor’s or professional degree. Pell Grants range up to $6,345 for 2020 to 2021, and they don’t need to be repaid.
  • Federal work-study: This program subsidizes eligible students’ wages at part-time jobs with federal funds, generally at jobs related to the student’s course of study or in the public interest. Work-study aid does not need to be repaid and may be used as the student chooses.
  • Subsidized direct loans: These federal loans must be repaid, but the interest is subsidized by the government while you’re in school, during your six-month grace period after leaving school or during periods of loan deferment.

In general, the lower your family’s income, the more likely you are to receive need-based aid. But other factors play a part, too. For example, you also might be eligible for need-based aid if you’re attending a more expensive school or if you have a sibling who’s also in college. That’s why it’s crucial to fill out the FAFSA no matter your family’s income.

These tools can help you estimate your financial aid eligibility, giving you the opportunity to see what types and how much aid you could receive:

  • The FAFSA4caster, from the Office of Federal Student Aid, is a helpful tool to get a snapshot of the aid you’re eligible for, with estimates that can be customized by your school’s cost of attendance.
  • The College Board offers an EFC calculator, which you and your family can use to determine your likely EFC.

Exploring non-need-based student loans

You may qualify for other federal student aid even if you don’t receive need-based financial aid, so it’s always worth submitting the FAFSA. Non-need based aid often takes the form of federal student loans. You’ll face federal student loan limits that put a ceiling on the total amount of federal loans you can borrow.

  • Direct unsubsidized loans allow undergraduates to borrow up to $12,500 a year, depending on their completed credits and dependency status. Students in graduate or professional programs can take out up to $20,500 a year.
  • Grad PLUS loans offer funding for graduate and professional students beyond the $20,500 cap and any other aid granted, up to the cost of attendance. These loans come with higher interest rates and fees than direct unsubsidized loans.
  • Parent PLUS loans can be used by parents to borrow for their child’s education, up to the college’s cost of attendance minus any other financial aid granted to the student.
  • TEACH grants can help pay for college if you’re planning to become a teacher in a “high-need” field in a low-income area. This type of grant has specific requirements, including what you may teach and how long the obligation is, but the grant can pay up to $3,772 per year.

You may also wish to explore merit-based scholarships and private student loans if you need more aid than the federal government will provide. But these should not replace federal aid. It’s also important to note that merit-based scholarships may lower the aid package you received.

Financial aid is complex, but it doesn’t need to feel insurmountable — especially once you understand various aid programs’ and FAFSA eligibility requirements. Remember, you survived filling out college applications. You’ve got this.

Rebecca Safier and Anna Davis contributed to this report.