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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students (undergraduate and graduate) in the United States to determine their eligibility for student financial aid.
The FAFSA should not be confused with the CSS Profile, which is also required by some colleges. The CSS is a fee-based product of the College Board and usually used by colleges to distribute their own institutional funding rather than federal or state.
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Nearly every student is eligible for some form of financial aid. Students who may not be eligible for need-based aid may still be eligible for an unsubsidized Stafford Loan regardless of income or circumstances.
A student who can meet all of the following criteria may be eligible for aid:
- has registered with the Selective Service System (for Conscription in the United States) between the ages of 18 and 25, if required to do so;
- maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP);
- is a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or an eligible non-citizen;
- has a valid Social Security number;
- has a high school diploma or GED;
- sign the certification statement stating that: 1) not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe money on a federal student grant and 2) federal student aid will only be used for educational purposes;
- has not been found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while federal aid was being received.
Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) of 2010 changed the criteria for suspension of eligibility for drug-related offenses. Previously, students could lose eligibility for either the possession or sale of a controlled substance during the period of enrollment. SAFRA dropped the penalties for possession of a controlled substance but retained the penalties for sale of a controlled substance. SAFRA increases the suspension to two years for a first offense and indefinite for a second offense.
Students who are military veterans and active duty service members may apply for financial aid by filing a FAFSA even if they also apply for education and housing benefits offered by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and its accompanying Yellow Ribbon program. The amount of military aid a student receives for a college education does not defer eligibility or reduce the amount of student aid that student could receive from the four federal grant programs – Pell, SMART, FSEOG, and TEACH – and many of the state student aid programs.
Preparation and filing options
Beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year, the FAFSA is made available to the public on October 1. The 2016-2017 academic year was the final time the FAFSA was made available on January 1. The US Department of Education made the FAFSA available earlier to more closely align the timing of the financial aid application process with the typical college application process. Additionally, 2-year old US tax information is used to complete the financial sections of the FAFSA beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year. This change in using "prior-prior tax year" information enables families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool in the FAFSA to verify their tax information without a delay from the IRS processing tax information. Most financial aid is provided on a first-come, first-served basis, and students are encouraged to submit a FAFSA as soon as possible.
According to the U.S. Department of Education's website, students have three preparation options: 
- Online at fafsa
- By telephone at 1-800-433-3243
- By paper
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 authorized fee-based FAFSA preparation. By law, fee-based FAFSA preparation services must on initial contact with students inform them of the free option and be transparent about their non-affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education and their fees. Students should not engage with FAFSA preparation firms that are not transparent about FAFSA options and their fees upfront, or that promise to obtain scholarships.
In addition to demographic and financial information, applicants can list up to ten schools to receive the results of the application once it is processed. Historically, there was some concern that colleges could deny admission, waitlist applicants, or offer less financial aid as a result of the order in which applicants list schools on the application, or FAFSA position. However, the US Department of Education changed the FAFSA for the 2016-2017 academic year to prevent schools from having access to view other schools that may be listed on the application.
After completing the FAFSA, students are presented with a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR provides a student with their potential eligibility for different types of financial aid, their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and a summary of the data a student provided in the application. Students should carefully review the SAR for errors and make any corrections as necessary. An electronic version of the SAR (called an ISIR) is made available to the colleges/universities the student includes on the FAFSA. The ISIR is also sent to state agencies that award need-based aid.
Types of financial aid
Federal Student Aid offers several different types of financial aid. The four most common types of aid students are offered from the federal government as a result of completing a FAFSA are:
- Pell Grant – A grant of up to $5,815 (as of the 2016-17 Award Year) for students with a low expected family contribution. A 2016 NerdWallet study found that students missed out on $2.7 billion in free federal Pell grants by not completing the FAFSA.
- Stafford Loan – As of July 1, 2015, any Federal Direct subsidized loan will have a fixed interest rate of 4.29% and the interest is paid by the government while the student is enrolled at least half time. The Federal Direct unsubsidized loan also has a fixed interest rate of 4.29% and accumulates onto the outstanding balance.
- Federal Perkins Loan – A loan that is like the Stafford but is lent directly by schools that are Title IV-eligible. Interest rate is fixed at 5%.
- The Federal Work-Study Program – A program where students can get part-time work, up to a certain amount. In most cases, the federal government pays half of a student's wage and the school pays the other half.
- CSS Profile
- College admissions in the United States
- FAFSA position
- Transfer admissions in the United States
- "Eligibility for Aid FAQ".
- FAFSA.ed.gov: Most male students must register with Selective Service to receive federal student aid
- FAFSA.ed.gov: Am I eligible for student aid?: If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25, you must register or already be registered with Selective Service. If you are a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands or the Republic of Palau you are exempt from registering.
- "Eligibility for Aid FAQ". Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "If you want to keep receiving your federal student aid, make sure you stay eligible". studentaid.ed.gov. Retrieved 2016-09-02.
- Tompor, Susan (August 28, 2016). "Oct. 1 is a new kickoff for FAFSA headaches: What do you do next?". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved January 5, 2017.
- "FAFSA Filing Options".
- Higher Education Act of 2008 PUBLIC LAW 110–315—AUG. 14, 2008 122 STAT. 3279-80
- Weston, Liz (November 11, 2013). "Colleges May Penalize Students Over Preference on Financial Aid Applications". Reuters. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
- Rivard, Ry (October 28, 2013). "Using FAFSA Against Students". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
- "Summary of Changes for the Application Processing System 2016 2017" (PDF). US Department of Education. December 2015. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
(see page 3:) "....We have designed a solution for 2016-2017 that allows us to send an ISIR to each school listed on the student’s record and only include the Federal School Code of the school receiving the ISIR.."
- "What is the Student Aid Report (SAR)?". US Department of Education. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
- "2015-2016 Federal Pell Grant Payment and Disbursement Schedules".