What is the FAFSA?

What is FAFSA, and why should you complete it? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid may make you eligible for grants, loans, and scholarships.
Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer

If you're returning to school and looking for financial aid, you may have heard about the importance of completing the FAFSA. But what is the FAFSA? 

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form college students fill out to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

Every postsecondary school in the U.S. requires students seeking financial aid to complete the FAFSA. Doing so can make you eligible to receive scholarships, subsidized loans, grants, and other financial aid. It's even a requirement for some merit-based scholarships. In other words, it's worth your time.

Completing the FAFSA requires buckling down and gathering financial and citizenship information. Read on to learn more about what materials you need to complete the FAFSA, what resources it can help you access, and when to turn it in.

When is the deadline to complete the FAFSA?

The federal government's deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30. However, there are advantages to submitting well in advance.  

It helps to submit the FAFSA early because schools and states get limited federal funding, which they award on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you submit the FAFSA just before the deadline, you may miss out on financial aid you could have potentially received.

Additionally, many states have state-specific FAFSA deadlines.

What do I need to complete the FAFSA?

To complete your FAFSA form, you need to provide the government with your basic financial information and citizenship status. 

If you are a dependent student, you will also need your parent or guardian's financial information and Social Security number. Be prepared to share your/your parent's:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver's license or state-issued ID
  • Alien registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information or tax returns: Typically, IRS W-2 tax return form
  • Records of untaxed income: This encompasses income sources such as interest income or child support
  • Bank account information: Your cash, checking, and saving account balances
  • Other investments aside from your home

Why should I complete the FAFSA?

You need to complete the FAFSA to become eligible for grants and scholarships, along with other opportunities such as work-study and subsidized loans. 

No matter your income level, completing the form can broaden your options in accessing help paying for school.

Below, we explore programs you may qualify for after filling out the FAFSA.

Federal Pell Grant

You need to apply for the FAFSA yearly to receive a Federal Pell Grant, a non-repayable federal subsidy. Pell Grants are awarded based on need, which the FAFSA helps determine.

How much Pell Grant money you will receive depends on:

  • Whether you're a full- or part-time student
  • Cost of attendance at your college
  • Whether you're attending for a full academic year
  • Your expected family contribution

 To remain eligible, you need to abide by your school's standards of "satisfactory academic progress" towards earning your degree. You may need to maintain a minimum GPA and take a minimum credit load each semester.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

FSEOGs are non-repayable grants tailored to college students in exceptional financial need. Fill out the FAFSA to determine your level of need. Financial awards range from $100-$4,000 annually, distributed through your school's financial aid office. 

Schools may have limited funds or not offer FSEOGs, so check that your college offers this grant and remember to apply early.

Federal Direct Subsidized Loan

Federal Direct Subsidized Loans are federal loans available to undergraduate students demonstrating financial need. The federal government helps pay off your interest. Completing the FAFSA form allows your school to determine your level of financial need and eligibility.

The government pays off the interest on your loan:

  • While you are in school
  • For six months after you graduate
  • During periods of deferment on the loan

As of 2022, the interest rate on direct subsidized loans is 3.73% for undergraduates and 5.28% for graduate students.

Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan

A Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan allows undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to pay for college at a fixed interest rate without demonstrating financial need. Unlike with a subsidized federal loan, you pay all interest on an unsubsidized loan.

Schools determine the amount you're eligible to borrow based on the amount of other financial aid you're receiving and the cost of attendance. You still need to complete the FAFSA to receive a federal unsubsidized loan offer from your school. 

As of 2022, the interest rates for direct unsubsidized loans are 3.73% for undergraduates and 5.28% for graduates and professional students.

The Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program allows part and full-time undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to pay for college by working part-time.

Generally, your work-study position relates to civic service or your major. Some schools have agreements with private companies to employ work-study students. 

Undergraduate work-study students get paid by the hour, while graduate and professional students may be salaried or hourly employees.


Scholarships are non-repayable financial aid awards for college students offered by schools, civic groups, nonprofits, and others. While most scholarships are merit- or identity-based rather than need-based, you still typically need to complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility.

Scholarships are usually conditional, requiring you to maintain certain academic performance standards and conduct to continue receiving money.

Regardless of your identity, major, or future career path, there's likely a scholarship out there for you. It's just a matter of finding it. Start by exploring ZDNet's scholarship round-ups. 

Discover scholarships

Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants

TEACH Grants are federal grants awarded on the condition that you complete a four- to eight-year teaching service obligation, generally within a low-income area. 

Qualifying for TEACH Grants requires completing the FAFSA to determine financial need. Annual awards cap at $4,000.

The program is offered to undergraduate and graduate teaching students, plus postgraduates who attend schools offering no undergraduate teaching degrees. 

If you fail to complete your service obligation post-graduation, your award gets converted to a direct unsubsidized loan.

In conclusion

Completing the FAFSA enables you to access financial aid options such as grants, scholarships, and subsidized loans. 

Even if you don't think you or your child are likely to receive financial aid, complete the form anyway. You never know what unexpected help you may qualify for.

Editorial standards