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Everything You Need to Know About the FAFSA

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If you’re going to college, you need to know what the FAFSA is — and you need to fill it out. It’s a crucial step toward receiving financial aid or taking out student loans, so even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for financial aid or think you’ll need loans, it’s still something you need to be familiar with.

What Is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students and their parents must fill out a FAFSA in order to qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans. Many states and other aid organizations require you to fill out a FAFSA as part of their loan, scholarship or grant applications.

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    Anyone entering the higher education system should consider filling out a FAFSA — which, remember, is free — because you never know what sort of aid you might need or qualify for. If you want some of the $150 billion in grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans the Education Department gives out every year, then you need to fill out a FAFSA.

    When Do You Fill Out a FAFSA?

    The timing to fill out a FAFSA depends on the academic year for which you need aid. For the 2016-17 academic year, the FAFSA has been available since Jan. 1, 2016, and the deadline is June 30, 2017. For the 2017-18 year, the application was made available Oct. 1, 2016, and the deadline is June 30, 2018.

    When it comes to completing the FAFSA, you’ll want to do it as soon as possible. State deadlines vary and some programs award aid on a first-come, first-served basis — once the available aid is gone, you’re out of luck. Each school has its own deadline, too, often in February or March.

    Again, fill out your FAFSA as soon as you can. Since the FAFSA is available so early, you may fill it out before you’ve been accepted to a school or decided where you’re going. Once you’re in school, you’ll need to fill out a new FAFSA every academic year.

    What Do You Need to Fill Out a FAFSA?

    Before you start filling out a FAFSA, the Education Department recommends you create an FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID). Not only can you sign your FAFSA with an FSA ID, you can access your student loan information with those credentials, which you will likely need to do in the future.

    Once you have your FSA ID, you’ll need to get together all the personal information required on the FAFSA. This includes your:

    • Social Security number
    • Parents’ Social Security numbers (unless you’re an independent student)
    • Driver’s License number (if you have one)
    • Alien Registration number (for non-U.S. citizens)
    • Federal tax returns
    • Parents’ federal tax returns (unless you’re an independent student)
    • Records of untaxed income
    • Bank statements and other asset information

    In the past (including the 2016-17 school year), you needed your previous year’s tax returns in order to complete the FAFSA. Because those tax returns aren’t due until April, many people had trouble filling out the FAFSA by deadlines early in the year. The Education Department changed that policy in 2016: Students applying for aid for the 2017-18 school year could use 2015 tax returns to complete the FAFSA, allowing students and their families to more easily fill out the form as soon as it became available in October 2016. That theoretically makes it easier for people to meet the early deadlines set by many states and schools.

    I Don’t Think I’ll Get Financial Aid. Why Should I Fill Out the FAFSA?

    Remember what the first F in FAFSA stands for — free. You may already be sick of filling out paperwork for college, but the FAFSA doesn’t cost you anything but time, and even if you think you won’t get any aid, you definitely won’t if you don’t fill it out. Again, this includes federal student loans, which the majority of college graduates have these days. It’s better to fill it out and find out for sure you don’t qualify or decide you don’t need the aid than to not fill it out and realize you need aid or loans after all. You can always check out the government’s financial aid resources if you have questions.  

    Should I Take Out Student Loans?

    It’s always best to explore “free money” options first, like grants and scholarships, before borrowing money for college. Check national options as well as state- and school-specific scholarships and/or grants.

    While student loans can be extremely helpful for getting an education, improving your earning potential and even helping you build credit, they can be expensive, and you have to figure out a way to repay them. (Student loans are rarely discharged in bankruptcy, and student loan forgiveness is only available to select borrowers who qualify.) If you’re thinking of taking out student loans, visit our student loans learning center to learn what it takes to repay them and how they can affect your future. If you’re looking to build credit during your college years, you may also want to consider using a credit card (responsibly, of course). This expert guide to student credit cards can help you get started.

    This article has been updated. It was originally published January 20, 2017.

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