FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

the denver post office and federal court house
Elizabeth Nielsen
Elizabeth Nielsen

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application is not the easiest paperwork to complete. In fact, the process can be downright intimidating. The paper version requires you to answer over 100 questions and provide documentation to back up your answers. The online version is a bit easier since some of your answers may allow you to skip unnecessary questions. Nonetheless, when considering that you may receive funding which can move you towards your educational goals, it’s worth it. On your path to, ultimately, career success, the time and effort can result in benefits that reach far into your future.  

All students may apply for federal student aid from January 1, 2016 through June 30, 2016 for the 2016-17 school year. Available funds are first-come, first-serve, so don’t delay. Let’s get down to business.

Yes, this means you!

Though you may have to list parental assets alongside your own, don’t assume you won’t qualify. There is no income cut-off. In fact, the mathematical calculation takes into account family size, your parent’(s) age(s), whether there are siblings who are, or will be, attending college and the overall expense of the school you will be attending (including cost of living expenses).

In addition, you are automatically in the pool for any state funds. You may be automatically up for specific school funds as well. In fact, some schools require you to fill out the FAFSA before awarding any of their scholarships.

No need to fear the form

Truly, the form has more bark than bite. You will receive step-by-step instructional details for every questions. If you need more help, you may use the online chat system and speak to customer service. If you are filling out the paper application, you may take it in to your high school counselor or the financial aid office at the college you want to attend. Call 1-800-4-FED-AID, email studentaid@ed.gov or visit studentaid.gov or FAFSA.gov for more detailed information.

The first step is to determine whether you are completely eligible for consideration. Before you begin filling out your application, gather all necessary information and documentation.

First, you will show that you have fulfilled the required conditions:

Completion of your high school educational obligations. Acceptable documentation includes:
  • High School Diploma
  • General Education Degree (GED) Certificate
  • Home-schooled credentials showing educational completion in a home setting approved by state law (residency state where your home schooling took place).

If you have not finished high school, you may still be eligible. You must show proof of enrollment in an eligible career pathway program for students who do not have a high school diploma, its recognized equivalent, or who have not completed a secondary school education in a homeschool setting. First, talk to the financial aid office to find out whether the school you want to attend offers eligible career pathway programs. If so, follow their specific instructions.

Career pathway program documentation includes:
  • Complete six credit hours or 225 clock hours toward a degree or certificate for an approved college and program and produce an academic transcript showing you have successfully completed at least a two-year program toward an acceptable bachelor’s degree. (Unfortunately you may not receive any financial aid while earning these credits.)
  • Documentation that you excel academically in high school…
    • specifically if you do not have a high school diploma, or its recognized equivalent
    • those without either taking a higher educational program that leads to an associate degree or its equivalent; and, meet the formal policies and requirement of the academic institution you will attend. (Must be enrolled at least halftime to qualify for direct loan funds).
  • Positive test results on qualified “Ability-to-Benefit” (ATB) tests which evaluate math and English skills for students who do not have a high school diploma, its recognized equivalent, or who have not completed a secondary school education in a homeschool setting. Generally, the colleges administer these tests.
Approved tests include:

Wonderlic Basic Skills Test (WBST). You can take the exam with paper and pencil or online. The test is available in Spanish as well. Call 847-247-2544 or visit www.wonderlic.com for additional information.

Combined English Language Skills Assessment (CESLA) administered by the Association of Classroom Teacher Testers (ACTT). This language test is valid in the U.S. Department of Education. Call (805) 965-5704, email actt@cappassoc.com or visit www.assessment-testing.com/celsa.htm for additional information.

Accuplacer (reading comprehension, sentence skills, and math) administered by the College Board. Call 800-607-5223 or visit www.accuplacer.collegeboard.org/students for additional information.

Also, you may complete state requirements approved by the Secretary of Education. However as of publication no state has submitted plans for approval as yet.

Next, demonstrate financial need:

A student must exhibit financial need to be eligible for financial assistance programs. Your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, application requires the information necessary to determine need.

First, your FAFSA application requires disclosure for parental and individual assets per your dependence or independence as defined. Even if you do not reside with your parents, or if you pay your own expenses, you may still be a dependent. Contact the financial department at the college to discuss any complications, such as not knowing where your parent(s) reside. Be sure to follow up. Your application may slip through the cracks without this requirement, with appropriate details.

Filing as a dependent

Dependent students must list all parental and personal assets in order to provide a clear picture of familial financial strength. Though parents of dependent children may not pay towards student education, the disclosure helps Federal Aid Assistance determine student needs as fairly and consistently as possible.

Filing as independent

Independent students must list all personal assets as defined.

If you haven’t yet filled for your 2015 income taxes, you may use your 2014 taxes to estimate 2015 and provide the actual income tax information once you receive it.

Are you a dependent, or independent?

Answering the series of questions on your FAFSA application will help you determine whether you are a dependent or independent in the eyes of the government:

  • Will you be 24 or older by Dec. 31 of 2016?
  • Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree (such as M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.)?
  • Are you married or separated but not divorced?
  • Do you have or will you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
  • Do you have or will you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
  • Are you:
    • an emancipated minor or are you in a legal guardianship as determined by a court?
    • an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
    • currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
    • a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?

If your answer is “no” to all questions, you may be considered a dependent student and will have to report parental assets. If you answered “yes” to one or more questions, you may be considered an independent student and may not have to report parental assets.

Remember, actual financial need boils down to the costs not covered by parental or familial contributions and/or other outside grants and scholarships.

Describe your family, for Federal Student Aid purposes:

Also, the FAFSA takes into account the various familial situations which exist. In order to choose which parents to list, the following guidelines are specified.

  • If your parents are living and legally married to each other, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If your parents are living together and are not married, answer the questions about both of them.
  • On the other hand, if your parent is widowed or was never married, answer the questions about that parent.
  • If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months. 
    • Did you live the same amount of time with each parent? Give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months, or during the most recent year that you actually received support from a parent.
  • If your parents are divorced but live together, you’ll indicate their marital status as ‘Unmarried and both parents living together,’ and you’ll answer the questions about both of them.
  • On the other hand, if your parents are separated but live together, you’ll indicate their marital status as “Married or remarried,” and you’ll answer the questions about both of them.
  • If you have a stepparent who is married to the legal parent whose information you’re reporting, you must provide information about that stepparent as well.
  • The following people are not your parents unless they have adopted you: grandparents, foster parents, legal guardians, older brothers or sisters, and uncles or aunts. 
    • EXCEPTION: The FAFSA asks about your parents’ education level. For these two questions, your parents are considered to be your birth parents or adoptive parents—your stepparent is not your parent in those questions.”

Provide proof of U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizenship status:

The official FAFSA glossary defines a student with eligible non-citizenship status as “a U.S. national (includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island), U.S. permanent resident (who has an I-151, I-551 or I-551C [Permanent Resident Card]) or an individual who has an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) showing one of the following designations:”

  • Refugee 
  • Asylum Granted 
  • Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)
  • Conditional Entrant (valid only if issued before April 1, 1980) 
  • Victims of human trafficking, T-visa (T-2, T-3, or T-4, etc.) holder 
  • Parolee (You must be paroled into the United States for at least one year and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose and that you intend to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.) 

Additionally, you will need these important documents:

A Valid Social Security Number

You usually find this on a card you received when you were born in the US.

A Copy of Your Valid Driver’s License From Your State of Residence

This can also be an official DMV ID card, if you don’t drive.

Valid Registration for Selective Service, If Applicable.

(Despite the changes in gender definition, the rule applies as of publication.) Male students must register with the Federal Selective Service in order to receive financial aid. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands or the Republic of Palau are exempt. For more information call the Selective Service at 1-888-655-1825 or visit www.sss.gov.

Your Valid Signature Confirming That You Don’t Owe For Past Government Loans or Grants.

Your FAFSA application will require your signature certifying that:

  1. you are not in default on a federal student loan;
  2. do not owe money on a federal student grant and;
  3. will use federal funds for education purposes only.

Finally, for more questions:

Call 1-800-4-FED-AID, email studenaid@ed.gov or visit studentaid.gov or FAFSA.gov for more detailed information.

Good luck! You can do this. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a great tool to help you afford college more easily.

Questions? Let us know!