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How does the FAFSA work?

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the form prospective college students must complete each year if they want to be eligible to receive federal financial aid. Filling out a FAFSA allows students to tap into the $120 billion the federal government offers to help pay for college each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

States and colleges also use FAFSA information to determine who qualifies for state and institutional aid, including scholarships, grants and other dollars that do not need to be paid back.

Who should fill out the FAFSA?

“Everyone should do a FAFSA, regardless of what you make,” says Greg Carlo, a financial planning consultant in Thrivent’s corporate office. “You may not need to borrow or you may not qualify for grants, but if you want to get any student loans—like low-interest federal student loans—you need to have a FAFSA filled out.”

When to fill out the FAFSA?

For high school students, the earliest they can complete the FAFSA form is Oct. 1 of their senior year. It must be submitted every year a student wants to be considered for financial aid.

What information is needed for FAFSA?

The information requested on the FAFSA boils down to income and assets, says Carlo, so in addition to a Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number, gather federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned, such as investments and untaxed income—for both the student and their parents, if they’re a dependent. It also asks which colleges the student would like to receive the FAFSA information.

What happens after the FAFSA is submitted?

“The colleges a student lists on their FAFSA form receive their information, and then the financial aid office develops an award letter,” says Kimberly Helm, a Thrivent marketing strategist and former college bursar. This award letter typically lists the estimated cost of attendance for that college and a student’s Expected Family Contribution, plus any grants, scholarships, loans and work-study they qualify for. The student will then need to accept the award and, if applicable, apply for an available work-study job to receive the funding.

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Learn more about college planning

Check out Thrivent's college planning section for more information on prioritizing and planning for college costs.

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Author Taylor Hugo is a freelance writer in Colorado.