Frequently Asked Questions

I probably don’t qualify for aid. Should I apply for aid anyway?

Yes. Often students think they don’t qualify for financial aid when they really do, and fail to receive any simply because they don’t apply. In addition, there are a few sources of aid such as unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans that are available regardless of need. The FAFSA form is free. There is no good excuse for not applying.

Do I need to be admitted before I can apply for financial aid?

No. You can apply for financial aid anytime after January 1.

Why can’t I submit my financial aid application before January 1?

The need-analysis process for financial aid uses your family’s income and tax information from the most recent tax year (the base year) to judge your eligibility for need-based financial aid during the upcoming academic year (the award year). Since the base year ends December 31, you cannot submit a financial aid application until January 1.

Do I have to reapply for financial aid every year?

Yes. Most financial aid offices require that you apply for financial aid every year. If your financial circumstances change, you may get more or less aid. Renewal of your financial aid package also depends on your making satisfactory academic progress toward a degree, such as earning a minimum number of credits and achieving a minimum GPA.

How do I apply for a Pell Grant and other types of need-based aid?

Submit a FAFSA.

Are my parents responsible for my educational loans?

No. Parents can take out Federal PLUS loans.

If I take a leave of absence, do I have to start repaying my loans?

Not immediately. The subsidized Stafford loan has a grace period of 6 months and the Perkins loan a grace period of 9 months before the student must begin repaying the loan. When you take a leave of absence you will not have to repay your loan until the grace period is used up. If you use up the grace period, however, when you graduate you will have to begin repaying your loan immediately.

I got an outside scholarship. Should I report it to the financial aid office?

Yes. If you are receiving any kind of financial aid from university or government sources, you must report the scholarship to the financial aid office. Your need would change and that would be factored into your award.

Where can I get information about Federal student financial aid?

Call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-800-730-8913 (if hearing impaired) and ask for a free copy of The Student Guide: Financial Aid from the U.S. Department of Education. You can also go to This toll-free hotline is run by the U.S. Department of Education and can answer questions about federal and state student aid programs and applications.

Where can I get a copy of the form?

You can ask your guidance counselor for a copy. You can also get the application from the financial aid office at a local college, your local public library, or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID. The online version of the form is available at If you are uneasy about filling out the long and tedious application, use Easy Aid’s services to ensure your application is submitted correctly.

I sent in my application over four weeks ago but haven’t heard anything. What should I do?

If you haven’t received a Student Aid Report (SAR), call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (toll free) or 1-319-337-5665.

My parents are separated or divorced. Which parent is responsible for filling out the form?

If your parents are separated or divorced, the custodial parent is responsible for filling out the FAFSA. The custodial parent is the parent with whom you lived the most during the past 12 months. Note that this is not necessarily the same as the parent who has legal custody. If you did not live with one parent more than the other, the parent who provided you with the most financial support should fill it out. This is probably the parent who claimed you as a dependent on their tax return. If you have not received any support from either parent during the past 12 months, use the most recent calendar year for which you received some support from a parent or lived with either parent.

Note, however, that any child support and/or alimony received from the non-custodial parent must be included on the application.

Financial aid applications can be somewhat confusing because there are several different criteria applied for different kinds of parenthood:

  • The parent with whom the child lived the most during the past 12 months.
  • The parent who provided the most financial support to the child during the past 12 months.
  • The parent who provided more than half the child’s support (and will continue to do so).
  • The parent who has legal custody.
  • The parent who claimed the child as a dependent on their tax return.

As noted above, criteria 1 and 2 are used for determining the custodial parent, with the first criteria being primary.

For determining household size (the number of family members), criteria 3 is the most important. However, the student’s custodial parent gets to list him or her even if the custodial parent does not provide more than half of the student’s support. This leads to the anomalous situation where a student can be counted as belonging to two different households. For example, suppose the non-custodial parent remarries and has college-aged children of his own. If the non-custodial parent provides more than half of the student’s support, he gets to list the student as a member of his household even though the custodial parent has also listed the student as a member of her household. (The IRS tax return instructions prevent this kind of double dipping on tax returns, but the instructions on the form apparently don’t.)

Criteria 3 is also used to determine whether the student has one or more dependents, in the rules for specifying whether the student is an independent student with dependents.

Criteria 4 and 5 are not used in the financial aid formulas, but are sometimes used to give an indication of the right choice when the other criteria are insufficient. Criteria 5 is also sometimes used to substantiate claims made under criteria 3. For example, a financial aid administrator may ask a parent for a copy of their tax return, to see whether they claimed the child as a dependent. Criteria 5 usually implies criteria 3, because the IRS definition of a dependent includes a 50% support test. There IRS definition includes a few exceptions where the parent isn’t required to provide more than half the child’s support in order to claim the child as a dependent, but in almost every case, if the parent could not claim the child as a dependent (criteria 5), they did not provide more than half the child’s support (criteria 3).

My parents are divorced, and the parent I’m living with has remarried. Does my step-parent have to report his or her income and assets?

Yes, provided that the parent you’re living with is the one filling out the form (your custodial parent). If your step-parent is married to them at the time you fill it out, they must report their income and assets even if they weren’t married to them in the previous year.

My custodial parent remarried and signed a prenuptial agreement that absolves the step-parent from financial responsibility for my education. Why does my step-parent have to provide financial information?

Prenuptial agreements are ignored by the federal need analysis process. After all, two individuals (parent and step-parent) cannot make an agreement between them that is binding on a third party (the federal government). The federal government considers the step-parent a source of support regardless of any prenuptial agreements to the contrary. If a step-parent marries the parent, he or she is considered responsible for supporting the parent and children even if he or she is unwilling to do so.

I was born on January 1, when I will be 24 years old. Can I check Yes in the answer to the question “Were you born before January 1, …” to qualify as an independent student?

The official answer is no. If you check yes, your SAR will be flagged for verification. However, most financial aid administrators would use professional judgment to override the default dependency determination for a student born on January 1 who also demonstrates financial self-sufficiency.

Additional Questions:

Do I have to get a high school diploma or GED to begin college?

Federal financial aid usually requires one of the above in order to show “ability to benefit” from higher education. Sometimes you can take an “ability to benefit” exam beforehand or pass a couple of college classes to show your potential.

Is there an age requirement for financial aid?

You have to be at least 16 to get federal aid.

When do I become an “independent” for financial aid purposes?

Since the Department of Education assumes it may take up to six years to earn a bachelor’s degree, students are dependents until they are 24 years old. There is however, some latitude if you are younger and wish to gain independent status. If your parents are deceased, if you are married or a parent, in foster care, or a military veteran, you may be able to get independent status.

How long does the financial aid process take?

Once you submit your FAFSA, you could receive a reply in as little as a few days. Paper applications could take several weeks to process. A SAR will be mailed to you detailing your monetary awards. Once signed and mailed, you will receive your official financial aid reward packet. The whole process usually takes less than two months.

How do I get my money?

The money is usually sent through the school you are attending. It will show up in your financial aid account through your school. Loans through private companies end up in your bank account.

What happens to my financial aid money if I drop one or more of my classes?

If you take fewer credits than full time (12 credits per semester), you may have to pay back your financial aid for that class. If you drop out of school altogether, you have to pay the money back. Most loans specify that you must pass your classes with a C average.