Applying for college is a lot like shopping in a store with no price tags. Because until you know how much financial aid you can expect, you don’t know how much your dream school might cost you—or whether or not you can afford it. That’s why a big question on the minds of parents and students alike is: How much financial aid will we qualify for? You won’t know the exact details until you start receiving award letters, but understanding your eligibility for financial aid, and how to qualify for it, can help you understand your options—and maybe even maximize your award, too.

Am I eligible for federal aid?

The government has a set of criteria to determine who is eligible for financial aid. In addition to demonstrating need (more on that later), you must:

  • Be a US citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Be registered with Selective Service if you are male (this is required by law for all males between the ages of 18 and 25)
  • Show that you’re eligible for a college or career school program, for example with a GED or high school diploma

To receive (and continue to receive) funds, you must be enrolled or accepted as a degree-pursuing student in an eligible school or program, stay enrolled at least half-time, and maintain satisfactory progress towards your degree (each school has its own set of standards for this).

In some situations, like for students with intellectual disabilities or with a criminal conviction, there may be additional requirements.

How to qualify for federal student loans

If you meet the eligibility requirements, the next step is demonstrating financial need. Key to this process is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which colleges and universities use to calculate how much money your family is expected to kick in for your education. Schools use the information in the FAFSA to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study awards and federal student loans.

How to maximize your chances for getting enough financial aid

For the best shot at receiving aid, apply early and cast a wide net. Some schools award funds on a first-come, first-served basis, so even though the deadline may not be until spring, it’s prudent to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available (October 1st of each year) and submit it promptly. It’s also a good idea to apply to several schools, including some private schools. Though they typically have higher tuition than public options, they may be able to offer more generous aid packages.

In addition to the FAFSA, you may also need to complete the CSS ProfileTM. This online application is used to determine eligibility for non-federal financial aid at nearly 400 colleges. Like the FAFSA, you should aim to complete it as soon as you can after it becomes available on October 1st.

What happens next?

After you’ve completed the FAFSA and/or the CSS, applied to schools, and received acceptances, you’ll also receive financial aid award letters. Compare your award letters to see side-by-side what different schools will cost you, and what you’ll still need to cover for each one.

If you’re surprised by your aid package, and believe you should have qualified for more, you can try to appeal your award. If you didn’t get enough in financial aid, there are options to help you fill in the gaps, including scholarships and private student loans.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

CSS Profile is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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