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Have you recently lost your job? Student aid isn't just for graduating high school seniors, adults can also apply and receive new skills or training that can help land another job or even a new career. Free money in the form of grants or other financial aid for college may be waiting for you, no matter how old you are! Applying doesn't obligate you to attend school, but it does give you the option.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application form that can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students (undergraduate and graduate) in the United States to determine their eligibility for student financial aid.
Nearly every student is eligible for some form of financial aid. Students who may not be eligible for need-based aid may still be eligible for an unsubsidized Stafford Loan regardless of income or circumstances.
Types of financial aid
Federal Student Aid offers several different types of financial aid. The four most common types of aid students are offered from the federal government as a result of completing a FAFSA are:
- Pell Grant – A Federal Pell Grant, unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid. A grant of up to $5,815 (as of the 2016-17 Award Year) for students with a low expected family contribution. A 2016 NerdWallet study found that students missed out on $2.7 billion in free federal Pell grants by not completing the FAFSA. You may be eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant if you are enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program. Amounts can change yearly. (20 U.S.C. 1070a et seq.; 34 CFR part 690)
- Stafford Loan – As of July 1, 2015, any Federal Direct subsidized loan will have a fixed interest rate of 4.29% and the interest is paid by the government while the student is enrolled at least half-time. The Federal Direct unsubsidized loan also has a fixed interest rate of 4.29% and accumulates onto the outstanding balance. (20 U.S.C. 1071 et seq.; 34 CFR part 682)
- Federal Perkins Loan – A loan that is like the Stafford but is lent directly by schools that are Title IV-eligible. Interest rate is fixed at 5%. This is a school-based loan program for eligible students with exceptional financial need. You may qualify for a Perkins Loan of up to $8,000 each year depending on your financial need, the amount of other aid you receive, and the availability of funds at your school. (20 U.S.C. 1087aa et seq.; 34 CFR parts 673 and 674)
- The Federal Work-Study Program – A program that provides part-time work for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, up to a certain amount. In most cases, the federal government pays half of a student's wage and the school pays the other half. The program encourages community service work and work related to your course of study. (20 U.S.C. 1087-51 et seq.; 34 CFR parts 675)
A student who can meet all of the following criteria may be eligible for federal financial aid:
- has registered with the Selective Service System (for Conscription in the United States) between the ages of 18 and 25, if required to do so (females are excluded from this requirement);
- maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP);
- is a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or an eligible non-citizen;
- has a valid Social Security number;
- has a high school diploma or GED;
- sign the certification statement stating that: 1) not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe money on a federal student grant and 2) federal student aid will only be used for educational purposes;
- has not been found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while federal aid was being received.
Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) of 2010 changed the criteria for suspension of eligibility for drug-related offenses. Previously, students could lose eligibility for either the possession or sale of a controlled substance during the period of enrollment. SAFRA dropped the penalties for possession of a controlled substance but retained the penalties for sale of a controlled substance. SAFRA increases the suspension to two years for a first offense and indefinite for a second offense.
Students who are military veterans and active duty service members may apply for financial aid by filing a FAFSA even if they also apply for education and housing benefits offered by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and its accompanying Yellow Ribbon program. The amount of military aid a student receives for a college education does not defer eligibility or reduce the amount of student aid that student could receive from the four federal grant programs – Pell, SMART, FSEOG, and TEACH – and many of the state student aid programs.
Preparation and filing options
Beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year, the FAFSA is made available to the public on October 1. The 2016-2017 academic year was the final time the FAFSA was made available on January 1. The US Department of Education made the FAFSA available earlier to more closely align the timing of the financial aid application process with the typical college application process. Additionally, 2-year old US tax information is used to complete the financial sections of the FAFSA beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year. This change in using "prior-prior tax year" information enables families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool in the FAFSA to verify their tax information without a delay from the IRS processing tax information. Most financial aid is provided on a first-come, first-served basis, and students are encouraged to submit a FAFSA as soon as possible.
According to the U.S. Department of Education's website, students have three preparation options:
online at fafsa
- by telephone at 1-800-433-3243
- by paper
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 authorized fee-based FAFSA preparation. By law, fee-based FAFSA preparation services must on initial contact with students inform them of the free option and be transparent about their non-affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education and their fees. Students should not engage with FAFSA preparation firms that are not transparent about FAFSA options and their fees upfront, or that promise to obtain scholarships.
In addition to demographic and financial information, applicants can list up to ten schools to receive the results of the application once it is processed. Historically, there was some concern that colleges could deny admission, waitlist applicants, or offer less financial aid as a result of the order in which applicants list schools on the application or FAFSA position. However, the US Department of Education changed the FAFSA for the 2016-2017 academic year to prevent schools from having access to view other schools that may be listed on the application.
After completing the FAFSA, students are presented with a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR provides a student with their potential eligibility for different types of financial aid, their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and a summary of the data a student provided in the application. Students should carefully review the SAR for errors and make any corrections as necessary. An electronic version of the SAR (called an ISIR) is made available to the colleges/universities the student includes on the FAFSA. The ISIR is also sent to state agencies that award need-based aid.
Want to be a teacher?
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant—The TEACH Grant Program provides grants of up to $4,000 a year to students who are completing or plan to complete course work needed to begin a career in teaching. The TEACH Grant is different from other federal student grants in that it requires you to take certain kinds of classes to get the grant, and then to do a certain kind of job to keep the grant from turning into a loan.
- You must serve as a full-time teacher for a total of at least four academic years within eight years after you complete or otherwise cease to be enrolled in the program(s) for which you received TEACH Grant funds.
- You must perform the teaching service as a highly qualified teacher at a low-income school or educational service agency.
- Your teaching service must be in a high-need field.
- You must provide the U.S. Department of Education with documentation of your progress toward completing your service obligation.
- If you do not meet the requirements of your service obligation, all TEACH Grant funds you received will be converted to a Direct Unsubsidized Loan. You must repay this loan in full, with interest charged from the date of each TEACH Grant disbursement.
there's no age limit. Almost everyone is eligible for some type of federal student aid. The adult student still needs to complete the FAFSA, and make sure not to miss any deadlines, just like any other student. If the student is interested in an aid estimate before applying, he or she can use FAFSA4caster to get that information. FAFSA4caster is a financial aid calculator that gives an early estimate of eligibility for federal aid and helps students understand their options for paying for college.
Can a student get federal student aid if he or she has bad credit?
As long as the student files the FAFSA and meets applicable federal student aid eligibility criteria, he or she can receive some form of aid. Credit scores are not considered for most of our federal student aid programs.
If a student has student loans that are in default, can he or she receive federal student aid?
Federal student loans need to be in good standing in order for a borrower to receive additional aid. Unless the outstanding amount is paid in full, it can take up to nine months to get out of default.
If last year's tax information does not reflect the student's financial situation today, how should the student fill out the FAFSA?
If the student's income is lower than it was last year—or will be reduced once the student starts school and needs to work fewer hours—he or she should contact the school's financial aid office as soon as possible. (Ideally, the student should contact the school before filling out the FAFSA, but that isn't a requirement for the process.) The school might ask for proof of the change in income and may use that information to recalculate the student's eligibility for federal student aid.
Is there financial aid specifically for single parents with children?
There is no federal student grant or loan designated for single parents, but federal student aid can be used to pay child care costs while the parent is in school. Advise the student to talk to someone in the financial aid office about having dependent care expenses added to the student's cost of attendance so those expenses are taken into account when the financial aid administrator determines the amount of aid the student can receive.
- Some schools have on-campus daycare facilities that their students with children can take advantage of.
- Some schools offer classes online; a parent might find the flexibility of such a class suits his or her schedule best.
- Although the U.S. Department of Education does not offer a special aid program for single parents, another entity might. Encourage your students to use free online scholarship searches to find out what might be available. Students can use the U.S. Department of Labor's free scholarship search tool to find scholarships along with information on how to apply
What other types of financial aid can I receive?
Aid From Other Federal Agencies
To find out about funding from agencies other than ED, visit StudentAid.gov/types.
Many states offer assistance for graduate or professional school. Find state grant agency contact information at www.ed.gov/sgt.
Statistics show that schools may provide nearly as much student aid as the federal government does. To find out what aid your school offers, contact the financial aid office as well as a faculty member in your area of study.
Where else should I look for funding?
Check out the following sources for additional funding:
- The Internet (there is a free scholarship search from the U.S. Department of Labor at www.careerinfonet.org/scholarshipsearch)
- Use FastWeb’s free scholarship search to find scholarships and fellowships.
- The United Negro College Fund has hundreds of different scholarship programs
- The reference section of your school or public library
- Foundations, organizations (e.g., religious, community, professional, ethnicity-based), local businesses, and civic groups
- Your employer
- Your state vocational rehabilitation agency, if appropriate (a list of state agencies is at www.ed.gov/svr and at www.disability.gov)
- Be careful, watch out for any scholarship scams.
Key points to consider when taking out a student loan
Student loans can be either subsidized or unsubsidized
Finance your education with free money first (scholarships and grants), then earned money (work-study), and, finally, borrowed money (federal student loans).
You don’t have to repay scholarships, grants, or work-study funds. When accepting the aid offered by your school, keep in mind that you don’t have to accept the full loan amount offered. You may request and borrow a lower amount.
What is the source of the loan? Is it a federal loan or a private student loan?
Student loans can come from the federal government or from private sources such as a bank or financial institution. Learn more about the differences between federal and private student loans at StudentAid.gov /federal-vs-private.
Have you heard about Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)?
Under PSLF, you may be eligible to have some portion of your loans forgiven if you work in public service. Learn about loan forgiveness programs at StudentAid.gov/publicservice.