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A Beginner's Guide to Financial Aid

If you or your child are planning to attend college within the next few years, you’ll want to start thinking about applying for financial aid earlier than later. The rules and deadlines can be confusing, but we’re here to help. Below, we’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to financial aid.  

Types of financial aid 

Financial aid helps students and their families cover the expenses of higher education such as tuition, room and board, books and other course supplies. There are several types of financial aid: 

  • Grants-given as gifts, these are often need-based and do not have to be repaid. 

  • Scholarships-award-based aid that does not have to be repaid. 

  • Federal or private loans-funds that must be repaid, with interest. 

  • Work-study and other programs-a federal program that provides part-time employment to eligible students to help pay for their education. 

Each of these types of financial aid may be available through the school the student will attend, as well as through federal and state agencies. The amount of aid a student receives is determined according to the guidelines set by each of these institutions.  

Applying for financial aid 

Your primary source for financial aid will likely be through the federal government. Submitting one application form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is the first step in applying for the federal Pell Grant, work-study programs, student loans and even scholarships offered by your state, school or a private organization. Of course, you may want to pursue additional aid from other sources, but your first priority in procuring aid should be to get your FAFSA form filled out and submitted.  

Luckily, filling out paperwork is easier than ever. You can access, fill out and submit your form online, via If this is your first time applying for aid, set aside 30-60 minutes for filling out your form.  

FAFSA deadlines to know  

There are three FAFSA deadlines to know: federal, college and state. The federal FAFSA submission has one set date, while each college and state establish their own deadlines.  

To be considered for federal student aid for the 2023-24 award year, the FAFSA form must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on June 30, 2024. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 14, 2024. 

It’s important to note that many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for state and institutional financial aid. Find your state’s deadline and also check with your college or career school about its deadlines. 

Because of the variation in state and college deadlines, it’s highly recommended that you fill out the FAFSA form as soon as you can after Oct. 1 to ensure that you don’t miss out on available aid. 

Who is eligible for FAFSA? 

To qualify for FAFSA, you must meet the following criteria: 

  • Demonstrate financial need. 

  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen. 

  • Have a valid Social Security number (unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of Palau). 

  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program. 

  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college. 

  • Have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent. 

There are more eligibility requirements for FAFSA. You can view the full list here 

What are some common mistakes that people make on the FAFSA form?  

Here are some of the most common errors on FAFSA forms:  

  • Leaving blank fields. Enter “0” or “not applicable” when warranted.  

  • Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Round to the nearest dollar amount.  

  • Listing an incorrect Social Security number or driver's license number.  

  • Using the wrong name.  

  • Entering the wrong address. Use your permanent address to avoid confusion.   

  • Forgetting to list your college.  

  • Forgetting to sign and date.  

Remaining eligible for FAFSA 

It’s important to note that students must reapply for financial aid each year and before the established deadline. Reapplying for financial aid is a quicker process than the initial application, and can take less than 20 minutes in total. In addition, students must maintain satisfactory academic progress throughout college to remain eligible.  

Other forms of financial aid 

In addition to federal aid, you may benefit from private scholarships, grants, loans and work-study programs. Talk to your school to find out what kind of help is available to you through the college and research financial aid through private organizations as well. However, as mentioned, applying for FAFSA gives you access to the largest source of financial aid in the country, so it’s best to explore your federal options first.  

The sooner you apply for FAFSA, the greater your chance at obtaining financial aid for college. Don’t delay; apply for FAFSA today!