College tuition is a hefty sum for many students and their families in America: Average yearly tuition at a private university totals $42,162; $23,630 for public out-of-state tuition; and $10,662 for public in-state tuition. It’s no surprise, then, that over 85 percent of undergraduates are awarded some form of financial aid — including federal aid, state and local grants and scholarships, institutional grants and scholarships, and student loans — according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The path to receiving money for college is through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is a form students and/or their parents complete to apply for federal grants, work-study funds, and loans. Many states and colleges also use this application to determine students’ eligibility for state and school financial aid. As the name says, it is completely free to submit the application.
The FAFSA form usually opens for the following academic year on October 1 — students must complete the form each year — but the 2024-25 FAFSA form soft-launched in late December 2023 due to changes in the application. It was immediately beleaguered by issues: Students were only able to gain access to the form for limited windows each day; a mistake meant students initially qualified for less aid than they should have (the calculation has been corrected); parents who do not have a Social Security number are unable to start or contribute to a student’s form; and the US Education Department recently announced that schools would not receive students’ FAFSA forms until March. Typically, schools receive this information shortly after students complete the form.
Given this delay, some schools are postponing their decision deadlines — usually May 1 — to June or beyond. The University of Illinois at Chicago is giving accepted students until June 1 to commit; Widener University eliminated the May 1 commitment deadline and has yet to announce a new decision day deadline.
If you are planning to attend college and want to receive financial aid for the fall 2024 and spring 2025 semesters, this is the form you will complete. The Federal Student Aid office has a webpage dedicated to announcements related to the simplified FAFSA that you can check regularly for any updates. The federal deadline to complete the 2024-25 FAFSA is June 30, 2025, though each college and state has its own deadline by which they need students to complete the form. Even though the federal deadline falls after the school year ends, financial aid funds can be applied retroactively to what you already paid that year for tuition.
If you have not previously applied for financial aid, create a Federal Student Aid ID. “The FSA ID is used to sign the FAFSA,” says Dean Bentley, the executive director of financial aid engagement at the College Board,“it’ll be required for all students and parents or guardians who provide information on the FAFSA.”
The changes to the FAFSA include a direct transfer of tax information from the IRS to the FAFSA form, increased eligibility for need-based grants, and the elimination of a discount for families with multiple children in college. While the updates aim to provide an easier experience, the process has frustrated many students and their families.
There is no income cutoff to be eligible for federal student aid, so all college students are encouraged to apply. The earlier you complete the form, the better, because some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, a frustrating reality for students who still are not able to complete their form due to persistent issues. Whether it’s your first time applying for financial aid or you’re well-practiced, here’s a primer on how to complete the FAFSA, including tips for the new 2024-25 form.
Where do I find the FAFSA form?
If you’re a dependent student — which is any student who is under 24; is not married and does not have legal dependents; is not a graduate or professional student; is not a veteran or a member of the armed forces; or is not an emancipated minor — your parent or stepparent will need to create an FSA ID, too, so they can add their information to the form as a “contributor.”
If you’re married, your spouse will also need to create an FSA ID. You’ll need a Social Security number to get an FSA ID. The updated form is supposed to allow spouses and parents without Social Security numbers to create an FSA ID, but as of now there is no workaround. Students with contributors who don’t have Social Security numbers are unable to complete their FAFSA until the issue is resolved.
Contributors are one of the new features of the 2024-25 form. Anyone who will provide tax and personal information to your FAFSA form should be listed as a contributor. Contributors are determined by your dependency status, marital status, and tax filing status. (For example, a contributor for a student under the age of 24 will be their parent. Married students’ contributors will be their spouses.) Contributors, despite the name, are not expected to contribute money to your tuition, just information to your FAFSA form. Make sure the student and any contributors have their FSA ID ready to go before starting the application.
Contributors will receive an email informing them that they need to complete information for the student’s FAFSA. Contributors should try to complete their portion sooner rather than later. If there is no activity on a FAFSA for 45 days, the form is deleted and you’ll have to start again, says MorraLee Keller, the senior director of strategic programming at the National College Attainment Network. Should your contributors need more time, a student can log in to their FAFSA form to reset the 45-day window.
The student’s FSA ID should be the one used to start the application as they are the one applying for the financial aid. If you’re filling out the FAFSA on behalf of your child, make sure to select “I am a parent filling out a FAFSA form for a student.”
What information should I have on hand?
The FAFSA requires students and their parents to enter a host of personal information. Here’s what you should have readily available:
- Your date of birth, Social Security number, address, and email.
- Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student.
- Your driver’s license number if you have one.
- If you are not a US citizen, your Alien Registration number.
- Tax returns for you, your spouse (if you’re married), or your parents (if you’re a dependent student).
- Records of child support received for you or your parents (if you’re a dependent student).
- Current balances of cash, savings, and checking accounts.
- Net worth of investments, businesses, and farms.
As a part of the new FAFSA form, you’ll then need to provide consent and approval to import your federal tax information directly from the IRS. Your family’s 2022 taxes must be completed before you can import the tax information. If you are a non-tax filer, there will be a code that the IRS will fill in that indicates you don’t have a tax return on file, Keller says. “The parts that people may have had anxiety about in the past [like] making sure they’re putting in the right numbers,” she says, “that is going to be alleviated with this process.”
Further along in the form, the student or their parents can add up to 20 colleges or career schools that will receive your information. If you already know where you’re attending college — say, you’re a rising junior and have attended the same school since freshman year — add that college to the form. If you’re still in high school and have not committed to a college yet, add any school you applied to or plan on applying to.
What about my parents?
If a dependent student is filling out the form on their own, they’ll be prompted to fill in their parents’ full names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and email addresses so they can fill in their information separately. If the student’s parents are divorced or separated, the parent the student lived with more during the last year will need to fill out their portion of the FAFSA. If the student spent equal time with each parent, the one who provides most financial support should fill out the FAFSA.
Parent contributors will need their tax returns, records of child support received, current balances of cash, savings, and checking accounts, and net worth of investments, businesses, and farms. “Families that have income above $60,000 will need to report assets like cash savings, checking, real estate, stocks, bonds, and the net value of their small business or family farm,” Keller says. “While that sounds complicated, there’s a lot of instructions to help families understand,” Bentley says. “There’s even an overview video that they’ll be able to watch when they start the application.”
A dependent student’s FAFSA form is not completed until their parent (and other contributors) completes their section.
What is the deadline to apply?
Again, the earlier you apply after the application opens the better. However, there are some deadlines worth keeping in mind. Each school has a different deadline for when you need to submit your FAFSA form, so check with your school (or the schools you applied to) to see when you need to submit your application for financial aid. Every state has a different deadline, too: For example, most state financial aid programs in California require the FAFSA to be submitted no later than April 2, 2024. Federally, June 30 is the last day you can apply for financial aid for the upcoming school year.
What should I expect after I submit my FAFSA form?
After you and your contributors have finalized and sent off your FAFSA form, the Office of Federal Student Aid will review your information and it will be shared with the schools you listed in the first half of March. Because of the delayed rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA, schools will not receive the FAFSA information until March. This will most impact incoming first-year college students who perhaps are waiting to receive financial aid offers from multiple schools before making a decision. Bentley suggests staying on top of communications from each school (including whether the school sends messages via mail, email, or text), contacting the schools’ financial aid offices proactively, and checking each school’s financial aid website for updates.
Students should receive an email indicating that their FAFSA has been processed and sent to the listed colleges. You can log in to your Federal Student Aid account and check to see if you need to take any further action with your form.
Then, you’ll receive a FAFSA Submission Summary, which includes a Student Aid Index, which determines how much financial aid you could receive. Schools will use this number to create your financial aid offer.
Your college may contact you if they need additional documentation or information.
“The student,” Keller says, “will be waiting on the award notification to let them know how much financial aid they will have for next year, whether that’s federal and state aid, as well as institutional aid. So that award notification would be the primary document that the student is waiting on to receive after they file their FAFSA.”
Update, February 6, 2024, 2 pm ET: This story was originally published on November 29, 2023, and has been updated multiple times, most recently with the latest information on the 2024-25 FAFSA.