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Federal Financial Aid

There are many sources of federal financial aid available to students seeking a college education and beyond. Start looking into the various options for federal financial aid early in your high school years to ensure the most options are available to you. It's helpful to understand the eligibility and application requirements for federal financial aid early on to make sure you don't miss any deadlines and that you direct your efforts toward the types of aid you're most likely to receive.


Eligibility for Federal Financial Aid

Students applying for most types of federal financial aid are almost always required to demonstrate financial need. Your financial need is determined by the U.S. Department of Education and is based on the information you report in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In addition to demonstrating need, students also must meet a set of basic eligibility requirements:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • You must have a valid Social Security number
  • If you are an 18-25 year old male, you must register with the Selective Service
  • You must maintain passing grades and progress in college or your chosen career school
  • You must prove eligibility for higher education by having a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or by completing your high school education in a state law-approved homeschool setting

Students who were enrolled in a college, university, or career school before July 2, 2012 can also prove that they are qualified to receive higher education by completing six credit hours toward a degree or certificate (or equivalent course work); by meeting other state-established standards that are approved by the federal government; or by passing an approved ability-to-benefit test. For example, if you don't have a high school diploma or GED, a career school may offer you a test to determine if you will benefit from the education you would receive at that school.


Types of Federal Financial Aid

The U.S. Department of Education offers several types of federal financial aid:

Follow the links above for more information about each of these types of aid. And, keep in mind other options for paying for college, including scholarships, crowdfunding, and hidden sources of funding.


Applying for Federal Financial Aid

The first step in applying for any kind of federal financial assistance to pay for college is to fill out the FAFSA. This form is used by the federal government to determine your financial need, and many colleges and universities also use it to determine financial aid from your school and from your state. You can find the application online at, and the form can be submitted online.

Gather necessary documents and paperwork
You'll need to gather the following documents (for you and in most cases also your parents) to fill out the FAFSA:

  • Income tax returns
  • W-2 forms
  • Other records of income
  • Identification documents, including social security cards and drivers licenses


You'll need to complete a FAFSA every year you need to apply for financial aid, not just the year before you enter college. Visit and make a note of the application deadline for your state.



If you need help filling out or submitting the FAFSA, there are many resources available. Your high school counselor should be able to provide information and assistance. Your college's financial aid office is also a valuable resource. And, the U.S. Department of Education offers chat support and a helpline (1-800-4-FED-AID, or 1-800-433-3243).


Scam Alert! Beware of services that offer help filling out the FAFSA, or even a better financial aid decision, for a fee. These services are scams, and more importantly, they are completely unnecessary. The resources listed above are free and readily available. You should never have to pay a fee for help filling out the FAFSA, and no service can change the assessment of your financial need by the U.S. Department of Education.


File your FAFSA

There are several options available for filing your FAFSA:

  • Apply online at
  • Fill out the FAFSA in PDF format and mail it in for processing (PDFs can be downloaded at
  • Call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) to get a paper FAFSA mailed to you, and send it in for processing
  • Complete a PDF FAFSA (Note: PDF FAFSAs must be mailed for processing)
  • Request a paper FAFSA by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 319-337-5665. (Hearing impaired callers dial 1-800-730-8913.)


After Filing the FAFSA

Once you've submitted your FAFSA to the U.S. Department of Education, your results are processed and sent to any colleges, universities, or career schools you listed on your application. You will also receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), usually within three to five days (if you submit the FAFSA online and provide a valid e-mail address). If you submit the FAFSA on paper, your SAR should arrive within two to three weeks, with a shorter wait if you provide a valid e-mail address.

The SAR will contain your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the number that the federal government uses to assess your student aid eligibility. When you receive your SAR you should review it for accuracy and make any corrections online at, or on the paper form and mail it to the provided address. You should also directly contact the financial aid offices of each school you are interested in attending and make sure they have any and all necessary information to make a decision about your financial aid. Note all deadlines on any communications from the school or the U.S. Department of Education.

Once you have been offered admission by a college or university, you will receive a financial aid award letter from that school's financial aid office. This letter will provide details about your financial aid package, which includes the types and amounts of aid you may receive from the school, as well as state and federal resources.


Receiving the Financial Aid

Any state, federal, or school aid will be paid to you by your school, at least once per term or twice per academic year, depending on how the financial aid office sets up the terms. You can expect to be paid by a credit to your school account, by check, by a combination of account credit and check, or by a credit to your bank account (done with your permission).


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