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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about FAFSA

This article is meant to help answer any questions that your mentee might have while filling out the FAFSA. As always, reach out to your Program Manager with any other questions you may have, or want included.

Check out the full guide to completing the FAFSA here.

Navigate directly to a question by clicking on one below:

Q. Where can I go to get assistance if I have questions while I am completing the FAFSA?

A. Go to fafsa.gov and select the “Help” icon at the top of any page of the application. The “Help” page lists all of the available options for getting additional assistance, including a live help option that is available through a secure online chat session with one of our customer service representatives. You can call us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1- 800-433-3243). TTY users can call 1-800-730-8913. Lastly, you also can e-mail us with any technical issues you may have while you are completing the application. The address is [email protected]

Q. Why does The U.S. Department of Education ask for income information from the year before I go to school?

A. The law requires income information from the previous year, since studies have consistently shown that verifiable income tax information from the most recently completed tax year (2015 for the 2016–17 award year) is more accurate than projected (2016) information and provides a reasonable basis for determining your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is an index used to determine your eligibility for federal student aid.

Q. If my parents are divorced, whose information do I need?

A. Report the information of the parent with whom you lived the most during the 12 months preceding the date you completed the FAFSA. It does not make a difference which parent claims you as a dependent for tax purposes. If you did not live with either parent or lived equally with each parent, provide the parental information for the parent from whom you received the most financial support during the preceding 12 months or the parent from whom you received the most support the last time support was given. If your legal parents are divorced but living together, select “Unmarried and both parents living together.”

Q. I am entering financial information for my mother and stepfather on the FAFSA. Should I give my father’s Social Security number (SSN) and last name, or my stepfather’s?

A. You should provide the SSN and last name of the same person or people for whom you are reporting financial information. In this case, provide the SSNs and names of your mother and stepfather.

Q. What should I do if my parent with whom I live has remarried and my stepparent refuses to supply information?

A. If you are a dependent student and your parent has remarried, the stepparent’s information must be included or you will not be considered for federal student aid. If you believe that your situation is unique or unusual other than the stepparent’s refusal to provide the requested information, you should discuss the matter further with your financial aid administrator.

Q. My parents separated four months ago. I live with my mother. My parents filed a joint tax return and claimed me as an exemption. Do I report income for both parents, or for just my mother?

A. Report only your mother’s income and asset information because you lived with her the most during the past 12 months. Use a W-2 Form or other record(s) to determine her share of the income reported and taxes paid on the tax return. If your legal parents are separated but living together select “Married or remarried,” not “Divorced or separated” as their marital status.

Q. If I live with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, should I include that relative’s income on my FAFSA?

A. You can only report your birth parents’ or adoptive parents’ income on your FAFSA. Only if a relative has adopted you and is now your adoptive parent can you report that person’s information on your FAFSA. However, you must report for question 45(j) any cash support given by relatives except food and housing.

Q. If I’m an emancipated minor, am I now independent?

A. If you can provide a copy of a court’s decision that you are or were an emancipated minor as determined by a court in your state of legal residence, you may meet the definition of an independent student. You would answer “Yes” to question 54 if you are currently an emancipated minor. You would also answer “Yes” if you were an emancipated minor immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your 12 state. The court must be located in your state of legal residence at the time of the court’s decision. You may be asked to provide a copy of the court’s decision.

Q. What if I am in legal guardianship, am I now independent?

A. If you can provide a copy of a court’s decision that you are or were in a legal guardianship as determined by a court in your state of legal residence, you may meet the definition of an independent student. You would answer “Yes” to question 55 if you are currently in legal guardianship. You would also answer “Yes” if you were in legal guardianship immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your state. The court must be located in your state of legal residence at the time of the court’s decision. You may be asked to provide a copy of the court’s decision. Tip: The definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if a court appointed them as your guardian. You are also not considered a legal guardian of yourself.

Q. What should I (the student) do if my family has unusual circumstances not mentioned in the application?

A. If you or your family has unusual circumstances (such as loss of employment, loss of benefits, death, or divorce), complete the FAFSA to the extent that you can and submit it as instructed. Then talk to the financial aid administrator (FAA) at the school you plan to attend. If your family’s circumstances have changed from the tax year 2015, the FAA may decide on a case-by-case basis to adjust data elements used to calculate your EFC. Any adjustment the FAA makes must relate only to your individual circumstances at the school you are currently attending and not to any conditions that exist for a whole class of students. Students can’t carry over circumstances from school to school. The FAA’s decision is final and cannot be appealed to ED.

Q. What should I (the student) do if I have a special circumstance and cannot get my parent’s data to report on the FAFSA?

A. If you are considered a dependent student, have no contact with your parents, and are unable to provide your parents’ data on the FAFSA, you may have a special circumstance. If you are completing the FAFSA online, answer the questions regarding special circumstances and the remaining student questions. Sign and submit the form for processing. If you are completing a paper application, complete as much 10 of the form as you can, sign, and submit it for processing. Your application will be incomplete with no EFC calculated. However, the financial aid offices at the schools listed on your FAFSA will still receive your data. Contact those schools listed on your FAFSA for further assistance to complete your application. Examples of special circumstances are: your parent or parents are incarcerated or you had to leave home because of an abusive situation. Tip: Not living with your parents because you are self-supporting or the fact that your parents do not want to provide their information on your FAFSA, are not considered special circumstances. If you are in either situation, you should still submit the incomplete FAFSA and contact the financial aid office at the schools listed on your FAFSA for information about applying for unsubsidized loans only. You do not have to demonstrate financial need to borrow an unsubsidized loan, but you will be responsible for paying interest on the loan during all in-school, grace, deferment, and forbearance periods.

Q. How do you know who should be counted in the household size?

A. If you are a dependent student, your household will include you, your parents, your siblings (in many cases), and other persons who live with and are supported by your parents. For cases where a dependent student’s parents are separated, not living together, or where stepparents are involved, the FAFSA instructions will help guide you in determining who your parent is. If you are an independent student, your household will include you, your spouse (if you are married), your children (if you have any—and in most cases), and other persons who live with you and receive more than 50 percent of their support from you. However, see the instructions for question 73 (dependent students) and question 95 (independent students) for the exact rules on who counts in your household size. 14 Household size and tax exemptions are not necessarily the same. Exemptions look at the previous year or tax year and household size refers to the school year for which the student is applying for aid.

Q. I’m not sure if I am interested in work-study during the school year. What should I enter for the question asking if I am interested in work-study?

A. Some schools use the answer about work-study on the FAFSA to construct a financial aid package for you. Answering “Yes” to this question does not obligate you to accept a work-study position. It usually just means that the school will consider offering you a work-study job as part of your financial aid package. If you do indicate on the application that you are interested in work-study, you can change your mind and not accept the work-study job later. Keep in mind that if you answer “No” to the work-study question when you apply—and subsequently change your mind—a work-study job may not be available if the school awarded all of the work-study funds to other students.

Q. What if I live with a girlfriend or boyfriend who pays the rent?

A. You should not report any information for a friend or roommate unless the two of you are actually married or have a common-law marriage under state law. You must report in question 45(j) any cash support given by the friend, except food and housing. You would have to report the rent the roommate paid on your behalf.

Q. What’s the difference between cash support and in-kind support?

A. Cash support is support given either in the form of money or money that is paid on your (the student’s) behalf. You must report cash support as untaxed income. Thus, if a friend or relative gives you grocery money, you must report it as untaxed income in 11 question 45(j). If the friend or relative pays your electric bill or part of your rent, you must also report those payments. Examples of in-kind support are free food or housing that a family receives, usually in exchange for work or services. You usually don’t report such support. However, the application does require you to report the value of housing a family receives as compensation for a job. The most common example is free housing or a housing allowance provided to military personnel or members of the clergy, which is required to be reported in question 45(g).

Q. When is student aid considered income?

A. Generally, grants and scholarships that do not exceed tuition, fees, books, and required supplies are not considered income. If you have an ROTC scholarship, a private scholarship, or any other type of grant or scholarship, that grant or scholarship may be considered as taxable income if it exceeds tuition, fees, books, and required supplies. That grant or scholarship will be considered as an available resource by the financial aid office when packaging aid. You should report grants and scholarships you reported on your tax return. You should then report these items as exclusions from income in question 44(d): Student’s 2015 Additional Financial Information. These amounts will be treated as exclusions from your income. For more information on amounts to be excluded from income, see chapter 1 of IRS Publication 970 (Tax Benefits for Education) at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p970.pdf.

Q. I am a non-U.S. citizen. Can I receive federal student aid?

A: You can receive federal student aid if you are an eligible non- U.S. citizen. You must enter your eight or nine digit Alien Registration Number (ARN) on the FAFSA. Generally, you are an eligible non-U.S. citizen if you are one of the following:

  • U.S. permanent resident, with a Permanent Resident Card (formerly known as an Alien Registration Receipt Card or "Green Card”)
  • Conditional permanent resident (I-551C)
  • Other eligible noncitizen with an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from the Department of Homeland Security showing any one of the following designations: “Refugee,” “Asylum Granted,” “Indefinite Parole,” “Humanitarian Parole,” or “Cuban-Haitian Entrant”
  • A citizen of the Republic of Palau (PW), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (MH), or the Federated States of Micronesia (FM).

If your citizenship status has changed from an eligible non-citizen to a U.S. citizen, you should contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to update your citizenship status. If you do not update your citizenship status with the SSA, it could delay processing your student financial aid. To contact the SSA call 1-800-772-1213 or visit the Social Security Administration's website at www.ssa.gov.

Q. I’m going to get married this summer. How do I answer the question that asks if I am married?

A. You must answer question 47 based on your marital status on the day you complete and sign your FAFSA. Answer “Yes” if you are married on the day you complete and sign your FAFSA, otherwise, answer “No.” If your marital status changes after the date you first signed your FAFSA, you may be able to update that information. First, check with your financial aid office. They will determine if the update more accurately reflects your financial situation.

Q. I’ll be filing a tax return this year but I probably won’t get around to it until April. How should I answer the financial questions? Should I wait to fill out the FAFSA until I’ve filed my tax return?

A. Ideally, you should complete a FAFSA after you’ve done your tax return, but don’t wait until April. Many schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, you may not be eligible for state aid if you wait until April to submit your FAFSA. Many state aid deadlines are early in the calendar year (calendar year 2016 for the 2016–17 award year). You can find your state’s deadline by going to the Deadlines page at fafsa.gov. If your 2015 income is similar to your 2014 income, use your 2014 income tax return to provide estimates for questions about your income. If your 2015 income is not similar to 2014 income, answer the income-related FAFSA questions to the best of your ability by estimating the amounts. If estimating, you must indicate that you “will file.” 13 Once you complete your 2015 tax return, you must update any estimates you provided. At that point, you may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to transfer your tax return information into the FAFSA. Make sure you complete the “Sign and Submit” part of the IRS DRT. Check with your school for further clarification. You might have to provide your school with a copy of your completed tax return (assuming you’re required to file one) before you receive federal student aid.

Q. Who qualifies to be counted in the number in school?

A. Count any person (other than your parents) in the household who is attending any term of the academic year on at least a half-time basis. The person must be working toward a degree or certificate leading to a recognized education credential at a postsecondary school eligible to participate in the federal student aid programs. You (the student) need not be enrolled half-time to be counted in the number in school. Do not include students at a U.S. service academy because most of their primary educational expenses are paid for by the federal government.

Q. Should I list my school codes in a specific order on the application?

A. For purposes of federal student aid, it does not matter in what order you list the schools. However, to be considered for state aid, some states require your schools in a specified order. Click on the name of your state at StudentAid.gov/fafsa/fillingout/school-list#order to find your state’s guidance for listing schools on your FAFSA.

Q. When does my school have to receive the results from my application?

A. Your school must have your information by your last day of enrollment in 2016–17, or by mid-September, 2017, whichever comes first. If your school has not received your application information electronically, you must submit your paper Student Aid Report (SAR) to the school by the deadline. However, do not wait until the deadline date so you have plenty of time to submit your information and make any necessary corrections. Either the electronic record, the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR), or the paper SAR that has been processed by ED must have an official EFC. If you make corrections electronically, you will be prompted to save those corrections and to sign and submit them so they can be processed. Once the school receives your information, it will use your EFC to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. The FAA will send you a financial aid award letter explaining the aid the school is offering. 15

Q. What if I don’t get a Student Aid Report (SAR) or SAR Acknowledgement, or I need another copy of that form?

 A. If you do not receive an e-mail with a link to your SAR (if you provided an e-mail address on your FAFSA), or your paper SAR or SAR Acknowledgement in the mail within two-to-three weeks after submitting your application, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). If you have a touchtone phone, you can use the automated system to find out whether your application has been processed or to request a duplicate copy of your SAR. You will need to provide your Social Security number and the first two letters of your last name. You can also check the status of your FAFSA and print a copy of your SAR at fafsa.gov. If you apply online, you will receive a confirmation page with a confirmation number after you select “Submit My FAFSA Now.” This confirmation guarantees that ED has received your application, and the Federal Student Aid Information Center can use your confirmation number to track your application if necessary. For more information on the SAR and SAR Acknowledgement, see “The Application Process.”

Q. I don’t have a computer with Internet access. What do I do?

A. You can usually find Internet access at your local library, high school, or a financial aid office at a nearby campus. Over 99 percent of FAFSA filers apply online. See How Do I Complete the FAFSA on page 5 to find out more about the benefits of completing your application online.

Q: I am applying to more than 10 schools. How do I add them all to the FAFSA?

A. FAFSA can list up to ten colleges. Once you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), you can make the information available to more than ten colleges through one of the following options. Each option will allow the college to receive an electronic copy of your SAR, and you will also receive an updated SAR:

  1. Click Login on the home page and log in toFAFSA on the Web. You will be given the option toMake FAFSA Corrections. Remove some of the colleges listed on your FAFSA, add the additional school codes, and submit the corrections for processing.
  2. Give the additional colleges your Social Security Number, name, and the Data Release Number (DRN) from your SAR so that they can add their school code to your FAFSA and receive an electronic copy of your SAR.
  3. Call the Federal Student Aid Information Center and have them add the colleges for you. When you call, you must provide the DRN from your SAR or confirmation page. Refer to theHelppage for contact information.
  4. If you have a paper SAR, you can replace the colleges listed on the SAR with other colleges, and mail the SAR back to Federal Student Aid. Note that the paper SAR only allows you to change up to four colleges.

  • Note: If there are ten colleges on your FAFSA, any new school codes that you add will replace one or more of the school codes already listed.

Q. If a student lives in a shelter or housing is otherwise insecure, what address should they enter on the FAFSA?

They should list the address of their high school.

Q. Student attended high school in D.C., parents live in NY.  Student didn’t get in-state tuition or state aid in NY - why?

According to the resident tuition policy in New York State, the residency of dependent students (under age 24) is determined by the residency of their custodial parents, regardless of how long the student has resided in NY.  So as long as this student was under the age of 24 and their parents were domiciled in NY for 12 months, it is unclear why they did not qualify for in-state tuition.  

The reason this student did not qualify for TAP is that they did not meet the eligibility requirements.  According to the HESC guidelines: “To be eligible for TAP, you must be a New York State resident for 12 consecutive months before the term for which assistance is sought and attend an eligible school or college located in New York State.” Click here for more information.

Q. A student/parent meets the eligibility criteria for using the IRS-DRT, but it still doesn’t work. What should you do?

First, double check that the tax filer’s name, SSN, DOB, filing status, and address are all entered EXACTLY as they appear on the tax return.  Even if there is incorrect information on the tax return - for example, the name is spelled wrong, or the wrong city is listed - this must be entered on the IRS screen.  For this reason, it’s very helpful to have the actual tax return on hand when attempting to use the IRS-DRT.  

 The address can be the most difficult item to match.  If you’ve entered the address exactly as it appears on the tax return, but the error message reads, “the address you listed does not match the IRS records,” the IRS may have reformatted the address on the return to reflect standard postal formatting.  To obtain the address in standard postal formatting, go to usps.com and click on “Look up a Zip Code.”  Then enter the address and it will be returned in standard postal formatting with the abbreviations used by the IRS. Try entering this address in IRS-DRT to see if this resolves the mismatch.

Q. How do I get more info about the ITIN?

Parents and students who are undocumented can file taxes if they apply for an Individual Tax Identification Number or ITIN. The IRS recommends that individuals complete an application for their ITIN at the same time they submit their 1040 tax return. More info about the ITIN is available on the IRS website