What Does FAFSA Stand For?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form each year you plan on attending college can help you qualify for several forms of financial assistance.

[Featured image] A Black woman in a striped top sits on a leather couch and completes her FAFSA on a tablet.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form available every year that determines your eligibility for college-related financial assistance. As you explore various ways to pay for your undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree, submitting the free FAFSA form each year you plan on being enrolled in a degree program can help you qualify for an array of financial assistance.  

FAFSA is administered by Federal Student Aid, which is an office of the US Department of Education. Once you submit your FAFSA, Federal Student Aid sends your information to your potential colleges (if you’re an incoming student) or to the college you’re attending (if you’re an enrolled student). Your school will then determine your federal aid eligibility and the amount you can receive each year to pay for your education.  

We've gathered important information on the FAFSA and its deadlines here, though you should consult the Department of Education’s resources for the most up-to-date, complete information.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into FAFSA, going over how it works, important deadlines, and more. 

How does FAFSA work? 

Your FAFSA form determines your eligibility for financial assistance. Colleges or universities, and states all use FAFSA when making decisions about who receives financial aid—and what type—so it’s an important document to file. With this form, you or your parents may receive financial aid to help pay for some or all of your college expenses.

FAFSA asks you to submit a picture of your financial situation in order to figure out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and calculate your financial award. Even if you do not qualify for need-based financial assistance, you may still qualify for federal student loans, which often feature lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans.  

Types of financial aid

You may be eligible for several forms of financial assistance that include a mix of merit-based or academic scholarships, need-based grants, or loans. You can’t request any specific type of financial assistance. Instead, when you apply, you’re automatically considered for the following: 

  • Grants tend to be need-based financial assistance. There are a number of grants available through FAFSA, including Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and TEACH Grants. 

  • Scholarships are awards that you don’t need to pay back, but they tend to be merit-based or intended for certain groups of people, rather than for students with financial need. 

  • Work study jobs are part-time jobs available to enrolled undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. In exchange for a set number of hours per week, you’ll earn income to help cover some or most of your educational expenses. 

  • Federal student loans usually feature a lower interest rate than private loans and come with some benefits, such as flexible repayment plans like income-based repayment (IBR). The amount of money you’re allowed to borrow each year depends on what year you are in school, whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, and your tax status. 

When is FAFSA due? 

You must submit your FAFSA form each year you plan on attending college or university. The form is available beginning October 1 and all submissions must be received by June 30. FAFSA’s deadlines operate for the following school year, meaning that you can begin applying on October 1, 2022 for the 2022-2023 school year. 

Awards are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s best to fill out and submit the form as soon as possible to qualify for more assistance. 

Who’s eligible for FAFSA? 

Generally speaking, only students enrolled at accredited institutions (in the US, Canada, or internally) qualify for federal student aid. You must also be a US citizen or eligible noncitizen, such as a permanent resident. Not all applicants have to show financial need to receive financial aid. 

There are no age or race requirements that affect your FAFSA eligibility. Your field of study is also not taken into account to determine financial aid eligibility. However, there may be merit-based or group-based scholarships that your school or department offers in order to support minority students and strong academic performers. It’s best to check with your financial aid office for more information. 

How to apply for FAFSA 

There are four ways to complete your FAFSA form: online via FAFSA’s website, using FAFSA’s app myStudentAid, mailing in a printed application, or requesting a printed application by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243)  and then returning it once you’ve filled everything out. Follow the steps below to complete your FAFSA.  

1. Gather your documents. 

You’ll need basic information like your name, date of birth, and address, as well as information about your financial situation. Depending on your circumstances and dependency status, you may need the following information or documents to complete the FAFSA:

  • Social security number (and parents’ social security number if you’re a dependent)

  • Alien registration number if not a US citizen

  • Driver’s license number 

  • Tax returns including W-2s (and your parents’ tax returns, if you’re a dependent)

  • Records of your untaxed income

  • Information about cash on hand, such as savings and checking account balances, and investments

2. Create an FSA ID. 

If you’ve never filed a FAFSA form before, you’ll need to first create an FSA ID, and a username and password if completing the form electronically. If you’re a dependent, your parents will also need an FSDA ID. You’ll need your name and social security name to create this ID. Use your ID, not your parents, when logging in to complete your FAFSA each time.  

Once you have an FSDA ID, you will use that each year you return to submit a new FAFSA. 

3. Complete your application.

If you’re starting the application for the first time, click “Start Here.” If you’ve already filed a FAFSA in the previous school year, you’ll need to renew it by selecting “Log In.” If you need to exit the application before completing it, there’s a “save” option, which will maintain what you’ve entered without filing it. 

List a school or schools. You can choose anywhere from one to 10 colleges to send your FAFSA information.To receive federal student aid,the order in which you list the schools doesn’t matter. To be considered for state aid, some states require you list them in a specific order.  Check to see if your state has specific requirements. Be sure you choose only schools to which you plan to apply or where you’ve already been accepted. You’ll need to enter the school’s code to have your FAFSA information sent to the school, and can generally find that information on each school’s financial aid page.  

Submit and sign. Once you’ve completed your application, sign the document using your FSA ID (if you’re completing a digital copy). You can also print the form, sign, and mail a signature page to the address listed on the page. 

4. Monitor your application status. 

After completing your FAFSA form, submitting, and signing it, you’ll receive a confirmation email that the application was successfully received (if completing online or via the app). Your next steps are to wait and monitor your application status to ensure it’s been properly completed and make changes or edits if needed.

You’ll also have access to a Student Aid Report (SAR) prior to receiving an official financial aid letter. Expect this report to be available three days to three weeks after submitting your application, depending on your method of filing. The purpose of this report is to help prevent any mistakes on your form. It’s like a final review to avoid any potential errors. 

  • A summary of your financial information

  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

  • A four-digit Data Release Number (DRN)

  • Your estimated eligibility for federal student loans and Federal Pell Grants

  • Whether you’ve been selected for verification. 

Make corrections or edits if needed. If you see that corrections need to be made via your SAR, correct mistakes or make updates as needed. 

5. Accept your offer. 

After submitting your FAFSA form and making any necessary corrections, you should receive an official financial award letter, or letters if you applied to multiple schools. You’ll typically be notified directly from each institution about your aid status and eligibility in the spring, depending on what you submitted your FAFSA. The award letter will include the cost of attendance (COA) for one academic school year, how much your financial aid package will cover, and your expected family contribution. 

Federal Student Aid will send your financial aid to your college, which will then use the money to pay for your tuition and other fees. Any remaining money leftover will be deposited into your account (if you’ve opted for direct deposit) or will be sent to you via check. 

6. Maintain eligibility.  

Once you’ve completed your FAFSA form and accepted your financial aid package, it’s important that you maintain eligibility throughout the academic years you plan on attending college. Many schools require students to make satisfactory academic progress toward graduation. Check with your school’s financial aid for more information. 

Beyond that, you should resubmit your FAFSA as close to the new availability date (October 1) each year. 

Next steps

On Coursera, you’ll find special programs designed to help college-bound students navigate the ins and outs of college life, even the financial aspects. Consider a course like U101: Understanding College and College Life offered by the University of Washington, which identifies the various types of grants and scholarships available and describes the steps involved in applying to these. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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