Filling Out the FAFSA: Your Guide

by | Jan 8, 2024

Parents and students can start to fill out the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as of December 31 last year. The College Board’s CSS/Profile form is open as of October 1. 

Colleges award financial aid and scholarships based on the information parents and students put into these forms, so students and parents must fill them out.

This piece focuses on what you need to know about filling out the FAFSA. For information on filling out the CSS/Profile, please read the companion piece.

According to research by the National Council on Education Statistics, an estimated 35% of students don’t fill out the FAFSA every year. The most common reasons are that students (and parents) believe, incorrectly in many cases, that:

  • They can afford college without financial aid.
  •  They’re ineligible or may not qualify for financial assistance.
  •  They’re reluctant to take on debt.
  •  They lack information about how to complete a FAFSA.

The reality? College is costly, so getting assistance matters. Some colleges cost as much as $320,000 for a four-year degree. The average student pays between $75,000 and $135,000 for their college education. Many students will qualify for assistance, so you must fill out these forms. 

Some people do decide not to apply for financial aid at specific colleges. At need-blind colleges, that decision makes no difference to the admission decision. At need-aware colleges, not asking for financial aid can improve your chances of admission, although, of course, it means you’re giving up on need-based financial aid and possibly merit-based aid as well. 

A list of need-blind colleges is at this link, but please check with individual institutions to verify their policy.

LifeLaunchr Webinar on Maximizing Financial Aid: Filling Out the FAFSA

LifeLaunchr’s webinar on maximizing your financial aid is an excellent resource before you fill out the FAFSA. It will explain how the financial aid system works and how you can maximize your aid legally by filling out the form correctly. Sign up to watch it at this link.

Who Should Fill Out the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is for students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with social security numbers. International students (with or without visas) are only eligible if they are permanent residents of the United States (green card holders). Parent citizenship or visa status doesn’t matter.

What’s New in 2023

The 2024-25 FAFSA (for students attending college in the 2024-25 academic year) involves several changes:

  • Simplification: The FAFSA now asks at most 36 questions instead of 108.
  • Different rules about contributors: The FAFSA will now have to be started by the student, who will then invite their parents or step-parents to be contributors to the FAFSA. Every invited contributor must provide their information.
  • New rules about assets: Families must now report the value of small businesses and family farms in many more cases.
  • Updated needs-analysis formula: The new FAFSA replaces the concept of the “Expected Family Contribution” with a new term: the “Student Aid Index.” The new FAFSA calculates the SAI with an updated formula
  • New rules for families with multiple children in college: The new calculation no longer offers benefits for families with more than one student in college simultaneously.
  • Expanded use of direct import from the IRS: More people will import data directly from their tax returns instead of reporting income information on the FAFSA.
  • Expanded use of professional judgment: It expands the ability of aid administrators at colleges to process “special circumstances” or “unusual circumstances” claims and use professional judgment to alter a student’s SAI or dependent status. It allows some students with unusual circumstances to be treated as independent, increasing their aid eligibility.

FAFSA Demonstration

The government has a good presentation that walks through the FAFSA screen by screen. You can view it here.

Determining your Student Aid Index

The result of filling out the FAFSA is the Student Aid Index, which colleges use to calculate student aid offers. The Student Aid Index replaces the Expected Family Contribution. Colleges use this number to estimate how much a family should be able to afford to pay for college. 

Not all colleges will award enough aid to make up the difference between their cost of attendance and the SAI, and the SAI may not represent the actual amount a family can afford. We recommend students and families fill out the net price calculators for each college. You can find the links in the “Costs and Aid” section of LifeLaunchr’s college profiles.

Start by Getting FSA IDs for both Students and Parents

A Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is a username and password. Depending on the student’s status, either the student or both the student and the parent need an FSA ID to connect their FAFSA to their social security number and taxes. Getting one is easy, so do it right away. You can do it at this link, and instructions are on the Department of Education’s website.

Get Your Tax Returns and Financial Records Ready

The FAFSA and the CSS/Profile use the “prior-prior” year’s tax returns. That means that to fill out the FAFSA for the academic year 2024-25, you need the parent’s and students’ tax returns for 2022. The new FAFSA requires nearly all students and parents to consent to retrieving their data directly from the IRS.

Other Records

  • Student and parent social security numbers. In rare cases, students without social security can receive federal aid. Click here for more information.
  • Students whose parents are undocumented: Remember, only the student’s immigration status or citizenship determines aid eligibility, so the parent’s citizenship status isn’t relevant. The FAFSA doesn’t ask about the parent’s immigration status (NOTE: According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, there is still “some risk” in providing undocumented parent information on the FAFSA because although “immigration enforcement authorities have never requested student FAFSA information in the past, … that could change in the future.”): Click here for the Department of Education’s guidance.
  •  Parents without social security numbers should enter “000-00-0000” in the field that asks for it.
  •  Americans without Social Security Numbers: You should apply for an SSN early to have one in time.
  •  Records of untaxed income you received, such as child support you received, and of income you can exclude, such as combat pay, taxable scholarships, and child support you paid.
  •  Asset Information, such as bank and investment account balances, your home’s value, and the values of farms and business assets. Value these as of the date you file the FAFSA. Please print and keep the records based on which you entered the data in case you have to verify them.

Filling out the FAFSA

To fill out the FAFSA, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa and follow the instructions. It’s relatively easy for most people. The FAFSA for 2024-25 opens on December 1, 2023.

You can also view a demo at this link.

Please note:

  • You can only add 20 universities to the FAFSA at one time. To send your FAFSA to more colleges, submit the FAFSA with 20 colleges, then wait a few days for a confirmation email. You can then edit the FAFSA to remove the first 20 colleges, add the others, and resubmit it.
  •  For college systems like the University of California, California State University, or the University of Texas systems, please send the FAFSA individually to each college you’re applying to.

Special Situations

There are a variety of special situations that make the process more complex:

  • Divorced or separated parents: The new FAFSA only treats parents who are divorced or legally separated as separated parents. The old FAFSA allowed parents who were informally separated to file the FAFSA with only one parent’s information. And now, for divorced or separated parents, the parent who provides more financial support is required to report the information on the FAFSA.

Sheltering Assets to Minimize the Student Aid Index

You don’t have to report all assets on the FAFSA. So, some families with significant investments can use strategies to shelter assets. For example, you don’t have to provide:

  •  The value of your primary home
  •  The value of retirement accounts
  • The value of 529 accounts designated for other students (e.g., the applicant’s siblings)

For some families, it can be beneficial to move assets into a bigger home and borrow against that asset to pay for college.

How Colleges Determine Your Financial Aid 

Colleges offer many kinds of aid:

  • Federal Financial Aid: The FAFSA determines eligibility for Federal Aid programs such as the Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study, and Subsidized Loans. Each year, the Department of Education awards about $150 billion in aid to students. It also determines eligibility for programs such as veterans’ or servicemembers’ benefits.
  • State Grants: Many states also offer residents financial aid through programs such as California’s CalGrant program. Qualifying for many of these programs requires you to file a FAFSA.
  • College Financial Aid: The FAFSA doesn’t determine how much additional financial aid any college will offer you. Each college makes that determination on its own, using different criteria. To understand what assistance you might receive, fill out the college’s net price calculator, which you can find on most college websites. Remember, many colleges require you to fill out the FAFSA even to consider you for merit scholarships.

Some colleges require you to fill out the CSS/Profile. For those colleges, read the companion piece on LifeLaunchr’s blog.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

Recent Posts