Updated: Jul 28, 2023
Applying to college can feel like entering the unknown. Not only do you not know which school you’ll attend in a year, but you also don’t know how much you’ll pay to attend. That’s because the tuition published by schools is often different from what students end up paying after financial aid and scholarships. Students generally know how much they’ll pay for their dream school when they receive their financial aid offer.
That’s why many parents and students wonder: How much financial aid will we qualify for? You will know the exact details when you start receiving your award letters. Understanding your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) eligibility for financial aid and how to qualify for it can help you prepare—and maybe even maximize your award, too.
The government has a set of criteria to determine who is eligible for financial aid. In addition to demonstrating financial need, you must:
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 toward your degree as determined by your school.
In some situations, like for students with intellectual disabilities or a criminal conviction, there may be additional requirements.
If you meet the eligibility requirements, the next step is demonstrating financial need. The key to this process is filling out the FAFSA. Colleges and universities use the information from your FAFSA to calculate how much student aid you are eligible for. They also use it to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study awards, state and institutional aid, and federal student loans. Financial need is based on financial information from two years ago and is calculated by subtracting your Student Aid Index from the Cost of Attendance (COA).
Financially speaking, a lot can happen in two years. If your situation is different now, you can contact the financial aid offices of the schools you’ve applied to and share any new financial information that may impact your aid—like a parent losing a job or your family being hit with unexpected medical bills.
The FAFSA is free to file. For the best chance to receive the most aid, apply early and cast a wide net as schools award funds on a first-come, first-served basis. So even though the deadline may not be until spring, it’s important to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available (October 1 of each year) and submit it promptly. Here are some other things to keep in mind:
After you’ve completed the FAFSA and the CSS Profile (if needed), applied to schools, and received acceptances, you’ll receive financial aid award letters. Compare your award letters side by side to see what different schools will cost you—and what you’ll still need to cover for each one. Scholarships often have rolling deadlines, so you can continue to apply for scholarships before and during college.
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.