Federal Student Aid At A Glance

What is federal student aid?

Federal student aid is financial assistance offered through the U.S. Department of Education and available to eligible students enrolled in colleges or universities participating in federal student aid programs. Federal student aid covers school expenses such as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and transportation. This aid can also help students pay for a computer and dependent child-care expenses. (Note that accepting any Title IV student financial aid does not commit the student to military or other government service.)

How do I apply for federal student aid?

  1. Obtain free information and help from your school counselor, the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend, or the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid at www.FederalStudentAid.ed.gov or 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). Free help is available at any time during the application process. You should never have to pay for help.
  2. Request a Federal Student Aid PIN, a personal identification number. A PIN lets you apply for federal aid, “sign” your online Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), make corrections to your application information, and more—all online. Apply for a PIN at www.pin.ed.gov.
  3. Collect the documents needed to apply, including income tax returns and W-2 forms (and other records of income). A full list of what you need is available at www.fafsa.ed.gov. If your tax returns are not completed at the time of application, you can apply with estimated tax information, and correct any discrepancies later.
  4. Complete the FAFSA between Jan.1, 2008 and June 30, 2009 (no exceptions to either date!). You should apply as soon as possible on or after Jan.1 to meet school and state aid deadlines (see note at bottom of page). Apply online (the faster and easier way) by going to www.fafsa.ed.gov.
  5. Federal Student Aid will send you a Student Aid Report (SAR)—a summary of the information you provided in your FAFSA. Review your SAR, make necessary changes and submit your SAR for reprocessing. Your complete, correct SAR will contain your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—the number used to determine your federal student aid eligibility.
  6. If you are selected for verification, your school’s financial aid office will ask you to submit tax returns and other documents, as appropriate. To receive federal student aid, be sure to meet the school’s deadlines.
  7. Whether you’re selected for verification or not, make sure the financial aid offices at your schools of choice have all information necessary to determine your eligibility.
  8. All students: 7. Whether you’re selected for verification or not, make sure the financial aid offices at your schools of choice have all information necessary to determine your eligibility.
    First-time applicants: Review award letters from schools and compare the aid being offered. Decide which school to attend based on a combination of (a) how well the school suits your needs (programs of study and academics) and (b) its affordability after all aid is taken into account.

Note: You may also be able to receive financial aid from your state government, school or a private scholarship provider. Research nonfederal aid early (ideally, start in the spring of your junior year of high school). Be sure to meet all application deadlines!

There are three categories of federal student aid: grants, work study and loans. Check with your school to find out which programs your school participates in.

Who receives federal student aid?

Eligibility for most federal student aid programs is based on financial need and several other factors. Your eligibility is determined by the information you provide on the FAFSA.

Basic Eligibility Requirements:

  • Demonstrate financial need.
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen (for most programs) with a valid Social Security number (SSN).
  • Be working toward a degree or certificate in an eligible program.
  • Show, by one of the following means, that you’re qualified to obtain a postsecondary education:
    • Have a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.
    • Pass an approved ability-to-benefit (ATB) test. (If you don’t have a diploma or GED, a school can administer a test to determine whether you can benefit from the education offered at that school.)
    • Meet other standards that your state establishes and of which the Department of Education approves.
    • Complete a high school education in a homeschool setting approved under state law.
    • If you’re a male between the ages of 18 and 25, register with the Selective Service.
    • Maintain satisfactory academic progress once in school.


If you’re not attending college this fall but would like to find out how much federal student aid you may be eligible for, the FAFSA4caster is for you. This new product is for those who want to get an early start on the financial aid process. You can access FAFSA4caster at www.FederalStudentAid.ed.gov.