top of page

Wait. How does FAFSA work again?

[Note: This post is adapted from one we published last year.]

Each year the federal government gives out $150 million in financial aid for college, helping nearly 15 million students make their higher education more affordable. Financial aid can take on different forms, such as grants (free money), loans (money that must be paid back), and work-study programs (guaranteed employment at your university). To determine eligibility for the different kinds of aid, you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. While the process for completing FAFSA may be daunting, the reward is usually worth the effort. After all, how often is an hour of work worth thousands of dollars?


You can file FAFSA as early as October 1. For example, a student who plans to attend college in August 2018 can file their FAFSA starting October 1, 2017. It is important that you submit your FAFSA as early as possible because the resources are first-come, first-served. In other words, since the money is limited, a later filing could yield underwhelming aid packages.


The FAFSA process has three key steps:

Step 1 - Submit an application on the FAFSA website.

Since most students are dependents--they rely on their parents for financial support--they will need to know specific details not only about themselves but also about their parents. This information includes social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, Alien Registration numbers (if not citizens), federal tax information or tax returns, records of untaxed income, and information on cash (such as savings, investments, and stocks and bonds). While the FAFSA website does its best to make the process straightforward and easy, this step is often best completed with both students and parents present.

Another important part of the application is that you will list which schools to send the FAFSA information. You are allowed to list up to ten schools. These schools will not know which, if any, others were listed in your application.

Note: Starting with the 2017-2018 FAFSA (last year), students must report earlier income and tax information. It used to be that students reported the previous year's income and tax information, but now they must report it from two years prior. The table below is from the FAFSA website:

Step 2 - Receive and check Student Aid Report.

About a week or two after you submit your FAFSA application online, you will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR. This report will list your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which determines your eligibility for financial aid. EFC is not determined simply by how much money your family has to spend on your college education. Instead, it is determined through the holistic financial information you provided on your FAFSA application, such as taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as Social Security). The EFC formula can be found here.

Step 3 - View financial aid offers.

Colleges will determine your financial aid offers based on your Student Aid Report. For need-based aid, the total is calculated by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution from the Cost of Attendance, or COA. Cost of Attendance includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses.

For example (need-based financial aid eligibility):

$10,000 Cost of Attendance

- $8,000 Expected Family Contribution

= eligible for up to $2,000 in need-based aid.

Non-need-based aid does not use Expected Family Contribution to determine aid amounts. Instead it is calculated by subtracting any need-based and/or private scholarship aid from the Cost of Attendance.

For example (non-need-based financial aid eligibility):

$10,000 Cost of Attendance

- $2,000 of need-based financial aid

= eligible for up to $8,000 in non-need-based financial aid

Keep in mind that you won’t know exactly what your financial aid packages are until after you are accepted to colleges.

Still not sure what to make of FAFSA? Have no fear! B2A can help you navigate through the process with our college admissions and consultation services. We’re pros at getting people the most for their money.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon
  • Yelp Social Icon
  • Yelp Social Icon
Search By Tags
bottom of page