If you’re currently a college student or applying to schools, then you’ve probably heard of the FAFSA. You might not know all the ins and outs of what it is or what it does, but you probably know it is related to your financial aid.

Filing the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the most important part in getting your financial aid. Without it, you can’t get any federal grants or federal student loans — and federal financial aid makes up the bulk of all student aid in the United States. In other words, it’s critical that you fill out the FAFSA if you expect to get any financial assistance for school.

How Often Do You Need to File the FAFSA?

Readers often ask us how many times they need to file the FAFSA. Many people believe they only have to file it when they first are entering college and never again. This is not correct.

You’ll need to fill it out once per year, every year that you’re attending school and want financial aid. For most college students, that means filing for at least four years. If you continue to graduate school and beyond, you’ll still fill it out each year as long as you’re in school. 

A good rule of thumb is to just file the FAFSA every year you are attending college and want federal aid.

The FAFSA is designed to give the Department of Education a clear picture of your financial situation and if you’re a dependent student (based on the criteria the government sets), it presents your parents’ finances as well.

Once you’ve submitted the information, based largely on your bank statements and tax returns, the federal government will issue you a Student Aid Report, or SAR. That report outlines what the government expects your finances will allow you to contribute to your college education. Although that amount certainly isn’t mandated, it helps decide how much financial aid you’ll receive based on your need.

Your SAR is also sent to the colleges you’re applying to or plan to attend. Then, each individual school creates a financial aid package to offer you. If you find that the amount of aid doesn’t total your college costs for that particular school, you can look into other sources of funding to make up the difference, such as private student loans.

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Do You Ever Need to Re-File the FAFSA if Circumstances Change?

Sometimes your circumstances change after you’ve filed the FAFSA. You or your parent could be laid off or become seriously ill and unable to work. Or, you may come into some money that reduces your need for financial aid. If your situation changes significantly after you’ve filed, you will need to declare those changes.

While you can’t edit the FAFSA financial information once you’ve submitted it, you can call your prospective school’s financial aid office and explain any changes in your financial situation. Keep in mind that you must declare any of the following changes:

  • Dependency status updates such as marriage, pregnancy, or legal guardianship
  • If you’re selected for verification, you also need to update if there is a change in the number of family members in your home or your parents’ household
  • If you’re selected for verification, you will need to update any changes in the number of college students in your home or your parents’ household

What Happens if You Don’t File Every Year or Re-File the FAFSA?

If you neglect to file the FAFSA every year or at all, you won’t be eligible for any federal student aid. That includes Pell Grants, student loans, and federal work-study. You’ll be wholly responsible for paying your college costs up front or with other sources of funding.

If your situation changes and you don’t report those changes, you could find your federal aid denied, and you may be expected to pay back any funds you’ve already received. Even worse, if it is determined that you got those funds by knowingly misrepresenting your situation, you could face legal penalties, fines, and even prison time.

Make sure you fill out the FAFSA every year— completely, accurately, and early. It can only help you.