How to Get Federal Student Aid

Considering federal student aid to help offset the costs of continuing your education? As long as you meet the qualification criteria and follow the necessary steps to secure funding, you should be in luck. 

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid doles out over $120 billion in funding. Even better, not all the funds have to be paid back. They have a pot of money designated for grants and work-study, so you may be able to cover the cost of your education without having to be on the hook for the amount you borrow later on down the line. 

Keep reading to learn more about the types of federal student aid and how to apply to get the funds you need.

Types of Federal Student Aid

Free Money

There are two types of free federal student aid: grants, scholarships, and work-study.


This type of free aid is usually distributed to students who have unmet financial need, and includes the following: 

  • Federal Pell Grants  
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants

Interested in learning more about federal student grant programs? Check out this comprehensive resource to explore all the programs available to students, along with award limits. 

Work-study Work-study is an arrangement in which you work on campus for a set number of hours per week in exchange for compensation. But what sets it apart is the fact that the funds used by the on-campus employer come from the federal government. 


Unlike grants and work-study, scholarships are typically awarded to students demonstrating academic excellence. However, they are only available to active duty, future duty military personnel, and veterans. These programs include: 

  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Education Benefits
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant or Additional Federal Pell Grant Fund 
  • Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarships

To learn more about these scholarships and others that may be available to you, refer to this guide from or this resource


If you don’t qualify for free aid or have an unmet financial need after you’ve exhausted all your options for federal grants and scholarships, you may qualify for a federal student loan. But since not all federal loan programs are the same, it’s important that you know the key differences. 

Federal student loans are housed under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and include the following: 

  • Direct Subsidized Loans- caters to undergraduate students with unmet financial need
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans- caters to students at all levels (i.e. undergraduate, graduate, and professional students) and is not determined by financial need
  • Direct PLUS Loans- designed for parents who have dependent undergraduate students, graduate students, and professional students 
  • Direct Consolidation Loans- a loan product that helps streamline the repayment process by allowing you to merge all your qualifying, outstanding federal loans into one product

Under these loan programs, you can borrow between $5,500 and $12,500 if you’re a graduate student, and up to $20,500 if you’re a graduate or professional student. 

Do You Qualify for Federal Student Aid?

According to the office of Federal Student Aid, you qualify for federal student aid if you meet the following criteria:

  • Possess a Social Security number (an exception applies to citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau)
  • Have a high school diploma or GED certificate (completion of a homeschool program approved by state law is also acceptable)
  • Register with Selective Service if you are between 18 and 25 years of age (males only)
  • Are actively enrolled or officially accepted in a qualifying certificate or degree program
  • Demonstrate satisfactory progress in your studies 
  • Endorse certifying statements on the FAFSA to affirm that you will only use federal student aid for expenses related to your education, you are not delinquent on any other student loans, and you do not have an outstanding balance with the federal government for a federal grant

Citizenship Requirements 

In addition to the basic eligibility requirements, you should fall into one of the following categories with regards to citizenship:

  • Be a U.S. Citizen or U.S. National 
  • Have a Green Card
  • Have an Arrival-Departure Record
  • Have Battered Immigrant Status 
  • Have a T-Visa

Special Scenarios

There are select circumstances that may require you to jump through a few more hoops to qualify for federal student aid. You can view these special scenarios here

How Much Aid Do You Qualify For?

While there’s no surefire way to determine how much aid you’ll receive, you can use the FAFSA4caster to get an estimate. This online tool is straightforward and will get you a result in minutes.

How to Apply for Federal Student Aid 

You’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered for both free aid and loans. The FAFSA opens on October 1st of each year and is due by June 30th of the following year. 

The application process is as follows: 

Step 1: Visit

Visit and select the “Get Started” button. 

Step 2: Complete the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is comprised of five components:

  • Student demographics- includes your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security, telephone number, driver’s license number, and citizenship status
  • School selection- limited to 10 schools 
  • Dependency status- this section is comprised of a series of questions 
  • Parent demographics-similar to the student demographics section
  • Financial information- can be completed using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to import your information

Be sure to complete each section of the form in its entirety to avoid issues later on down the line. And if you reach the last section and realize you incorrectly entered or forgot to include information, don’t worry. There will be time to review your entries prior to submission. 

Step 3: Review your entries. 

Before you hit submit, the online portal will prompt you to go through each section of your application and check for errors or omissions. 

Step 4: Submit your FAFSA.

Upon confirming your entries are accurate, the final step is to hit submit. But before you do so, keep in mind that you’ll have to sign it via electronic signature first. (Your parent will also have to sign electronically if you’re classified as a dependent student).

Important note: in order to sign, you’ll need to be logged into the portal with your FSA ID. If you’re unable to recall it, you can request that it be sent to you via email here. And if your parent has to sign, he or she will need to use his or her unique FSA ID. 

Prefer to complete a paper form? Simply print out the form found in the portal, complete it in its entirety, and follow the instructions on the form to mail it in. 

The Next Steps…

Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, it will be routed to the colleges, schools, or institutions that you selected on the application. Their financial aid office(s) will follow-up with an award letter that tells you the types and amount of federal aid you qualify for, along with any other requirements that they may have to finalize your application. This could include verification documents or other similar forms. 

You will also receive a Student Aid Report from the feds with a summary of the information included in your FAFSA. Check for accuracy and file this document for your records. 

Bonus tip: many institutions of higher learning have in-house scholarships that they distribute to students, so you may qualify for one based on unmet financial need as indicated after analyzing your FAFSA. 

The completed FAFSA will also be shared with the higher education agency in the states where the schools you’re considering are located to determine if you qualify for funding at the state level. 

How to Check on the Status of Your FAFSA

For online submissions, the status will be available in real-time on the FAFSA website. However, paper submissions require a 7 to 10-day window to receive a status update. If it doesn’t appear 

on the website after this window, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center directly via live chat, email, or by phone at 1-800-433-3243. They have representatives standing by Monday through Sunday from 8 am to 11 pm on weekdays and 11 am to 5 pm on the weekend to assist.