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FAFSA Guide for Military Members and Families

Each year, the Department of Education provides over $120 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds through the FAFSA process. Many schools use FAFSA data to award their own tuition assistance, including scholarships.
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FAFSA guide for military members

The average cost to attend a four-year public university has increased more than 179% in the last 20 years, according to the Education Data Initiative. Financial aid is an important bolster for many students looking to further their education. 

Grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans are just some of the options within reach for students who are taking their first steps toward earning a degree or trade certification. 

The best way to find them is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

What is the FAFSA? 

The Department of Education’s FAFSA is an essential tool in your search for college money. 

Each year, the Department of Education provides over $120 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds through the FAFSA process. Many schools use FAFSA data to award their own tuition assistance, including scholarships.

What are the Requirements for Applying for FAFSA? 

To be eligible to apply for financial aid from the federal government, you must: 

  • Have obtained a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate
  • Enrolled or  accepted into an an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Be registered with the Selective Service (male students between 18-25 years of age)
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Sign a statement that you are not in default on a federal student loan
  • Be a U.S. citizen or have a Permanent Resident (Green) Card with supporting documentation

Once enrolled, you must also maintain “satisfactory academic progress” in college or career school. Schools define satisfactory progress differently. To make sure you stay in the clear, ask your school’s financial aid office how they determine if you’re meeting educational requirements and on track to graduate on time.

While income is taken into consideration, higher income does not automatically prevent you from getting federal student aid. 

Which FAFSA Do I Fill Out? 

If you have never applied for financial aid for educational benefits, you might be confused by all the acronyms and the process. The simple answer is there is only one FAFSA form for each year. You can find it at studentaid.gov.  

If you’re unsure which year you should be filling the form out for (especially if you’re attending school over the summer), contact your school’s financial aid office. 

When Does the FAFSA Need to Be Filed? 

Each school, state, and trade school has its own financial aid deadlines, but the FAFSA updates each year on Oct. 1. You should fill out the FAFSA during your admissions process, then fill it out again each year.  

  • Do I Have to Fill Out the FAFSA Every Year? 

Yes. To be eligible for financial aid, you’ll need to fill out a new FAFSA each year.

  • FALL 2022 FAFSA Due Date

To be considered for federal student aid for the 2021–22 award year, you must submit your FAFSA by June 30, 2022.  

  • Why Should I File the FAFSA Early? 

Figuring out how you’ll pay for your education should be one of your first steps in planning it. Because of the variation in state and college deadlines, you should fill out the FAFSA form as soon as you can after Oct. 1 to ensure that you don’t miss out on available aid. If you’re considering multiple universities, the extra time can help you compare costs and available aid for each. 

Ways to Submit Your FAFSA

You can submit your FAFSA in three ways: three submission options available to you: 

  • Electronic form 
  • Mail-in application (Download from FAFSA.gov or call 1-800-433-3243 to request one by mail 
  • Electronic submission from your college or career school. If you fill out your FAFSA with the help of a school financial aid officer, your school may submit your FAFSA for you. 

How to Complete the FAFSA

  • Create a FSA ID

Creating a Federal Student Aid ID allows you to sign your FAFSA® form electronically. 

You can sign up for your FSA ID on the FAFSA website. 

  • Gather Your Documents

You’ll need to have some documentation on hand to fill out the FAFSA’s questions about you and your financial situation. 

What You’ll Need to Fill Out the FAFSA:

  • Social Security number 
  • Alien registration number (if not a U.S. citizen) 
  • Investments other than the home in which you live 
  • Cash, savings, and checking account balances 
  • Federal tax information or tax returns 

You can use the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to retrieve and transfer your personal tax information into the FAFSA form automatically. To do this, click the “Link to IRS” button in the finances section of your electronic FAFSA)

Missing something? That’s fine. You can start the FAFSA, save your progress and come back to fill out more information later. 

  • List Colleges and/or Career Schools

While completing the FAFSA form, you must list between one and 10 schools to receive your FAFSA information. 

  • Report Your Parents’ Information. The FAFSA form asks a series of questions that determine whether you are a dependent or independent student.
    • To be considered a dependent student, you must: 
      • Be age 24 or older
      • Be married 
      • Be a graduate or professional student
      • Be a current or veteran military member
      • Be an orphan, emancipated minor or ward of the court
      • Be homeless (or at risk of becoming homeless) 
      • Have legal dependents. 

If none of those apply, you’re a dependent student. That means you’ll need to report your parents’ information on your FAFSA form. An easy way to do this is to ask your parents to register for their own FSA ID. Then they can log in and fill out their information as well. 

How Your Military Affiliation May Affect FAFSA Applications:

If you’re a military member or a veteran, you’re considered an independent student and may qualify for more financial aid.

What Happens if I Make an Error on my FAFSA?

The Department of Education will let you know if they’ve found any errors with your FAFSA via email or mail. If you realized you made an error that FAFSA didn’t catch, you can correct your electronic form. 

To make changes, log in to fafsa.gov and enter your FSA ID. On the “My FAFSA” page, select “Make FAFSA Corrections.” Be sure to save your changes. 

How Long Does the FAFSA Take to Fully Process? 

If you submitted the FAFSA electronically, you should receive an email within three to five days letting you know your FAFSA was processed, according to the Department of Education. 

If you mailed in a paper FAFSA, processing could take up to 10 days, depending on mail delays. Pay attention to emails from your school as well – they may email you to request additional information. 

What Happens After I Submit My FAFSA? 

Depending on your school, you may receive a financial aid offer (or award letter) automatically. If you don’t hear anything within a few days, check in with your school’s student financial aid office to see if you need to take any additional steps to receive your award package.

Your financial aid offer or award letter may include grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities or student loans – or a mix of these options. 

Understanding Student Loans 

Your school’s financial aid offer may include student loans. 

Remember that a student loan is just like any other type of loan. You’re going to have to pay it back with interest. Pay attention to your loan’s terms and repayment plan options and never allow your loan to fall into default. If you ignore your loan or don’t meet its repayment terms, the lender can take action against you to collect the funds –including wage garnishment. Contact your loan servicer to find out more about your repayment obligations. 

If you’re a service member who must use a student loan (or you’ve had previous student loans), remember that you can receive limited interest rates, no accrual of interest, and postponement of student loan provisions under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.  

For specifics, contact your loan servicer. 

FAFSA Considerations for Military Members, Veterans and Families 

Service members, veterans and military families have access to additional financial aid benefits. 

The federal government and nonprofit organizations offer money for college to veterans, future military personnel, active duty personnel and their dependents. You may find some of these through the FAFSA. 

If you lost a loved one who was serving in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, you can receive aid through the Federal Pell Grant. The Expected Family Contributions (EFC) section on your FAFSA determines your eligibility for a Pell Grant. If your parent or guardian died in military service, your EFC is calculated at zero. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) also offers education benefits for veterans, their widows and dependents. 

Other Ways the Military Can Pay for College

Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at more than 1,000 U.S. colleges offer merit scholarships. 

Here’s where to get more information. 

For those currently in the ranks, contact your education office. If you’re thinking about joining the military and want to hear more about educational benefits, reach out to a recruiter. 

Tuition assistance eligibility and award amounts vary by service component, but this is another way to supplement your education expenses if you qualify.

 Keep in mind that the National Guard may offer additional tuition assistance through state programs.

Read more:

FHow Does the VA Calculate Post-9/11 Benefits?

Tips For Saving Time on the FAFSA 

Filling out your FAFSA electronically is the best way to save time on it. You can use IRS tools to fill out your tax information, and parents can log in to assist dependent students on some sections. Processing is also faster because you don’t need to factor in mail delays. 

You can also download the myStudentAid app from the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (for Android devices). 

The app will help you view updates and make corrections on your application quickly without having to sit down at a computer.  

Make sure you review your application with a financial aid professional from your school to ensure you’ve filled it out completely and accurately. 


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About Jamie Melchert

Jamie Melchert is a retired member of the Missouri Army National Guard. He served on overseas combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His articles have appeared across numerous military and civilian publications over his 20-year public affairs career.

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