If you are applying for colleges or are already in school, then you are probably also looking at filling out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s the gateway to all federal financial aid, including grants and low-interest student loans. By filling it out, colleges know what your financial situation is and can create a financial aid package that hopefully covers most, if not all, of the costs of attending college for an academic year.

The Department of Education takes the position that it’s your job—with help from your family—to pay for school. Federal financial aid is geared to help those students whose families cannot afford to pay.

Your financial need is determined by several factors, including the information you enter into the application about your financial situation and that of your parents if you’re a dependent student. It’s important to be accurate because those numbers determine how much you can get from the FAFSA.

How Much Financial Aid Will I Get From the Federal Government?

Federal aid comes in three types: Pell grants, student loans, and work-study programs. Grants are money you don’t need to pay back and are one of the best types of aid to be awarded because they’re “free” money for school. They’re need-based, which means they’re only offered to students who demonstrate financial inability to go to school without them. The maximum Pell grant amount you can receive is $6,095 for the 2018–2019 school year; other grants offered by the federal government can total up to $4,000 each.

Federal work-study programs allow students to work at jobs on or off campus; the money earned can be used for educational or living expenses while attending. Work-study programs are flexible, work around class schedules, and are only part-time. They could include tutoring other students, serving or prepping food in the cafeteria, acting as a monitor in the campus computer lab, or a host of other things. In some cases, you could get a work-study job related to your major, leading to an even richer educational experience that also helps pay for itself. Work-study doesn’t have a maximum awarded amount; it’s wholly dependent on the individual student’s situation.

Federal student loans are considered non-need-based; in other words, they are geared for students who find themselves in need of additional funds even though they have maxed out or don’t qualify for any grants or work-study programs. They typically have low interest rates and other perks for repayment that make them a desirable option for many students. Each type of federal student loan has its own maximum amount; direct unsubsidized loans, for instance, are capped at $20,500, minus any subsidized amounts for the year that you may have also received.

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What is the Maximum Amount of Money the FAFSA Gives?

Regardless of each program’s stated maximum, the most federal aid you can get is the cost of attendance for the school of your choice. If your school’s tuition, books, room and board, and assorted fees total $30,000 per academic year, for instance, then that is the most you can receive.

Your school, based upon your FAFSA, will determine the best combination of the various financial aid types to cover as much of the cost as possible. Anything not covered is your responsibility to get funding for, whether that be from a job you hold during school, third-party scholarships and grants, or private student loans.

It also matters where in your education you currently are. Students in graduate school can sometimes get more money than those in undergraduate; grad school typically costs more money, and most students need more help.

Many grad students, however, are already working in their chosen career fields and are making more money than their undergraduate counterparts. They’re also often independent for the purposes of financial reporting, and therefore cannot count on funds from their parents or other family members.

Undergraduates, on the other hand, are often still somewhat financially dependent on their parents for money for school and living expenses. The FAFSA takes that into account when it asks you to report your parents' cash balances, expecting a bigger contribution from them than independent students.

Conclusion

With so many different programs—and rules that often change each year—it can be confusing to know how much you can get from the FAFSA. Thankfully, a tool exists that can help you project how much federal financial aid you’d qualify for. It’s called FAFSA4caster, and it’s available on the FAFSA.edu.gov website.

FAFSA4Caster can help you get a general idea of what to expect in terms of financial aid offerings. The best advice to maximize your federal student aid, however, is to fill out the FAFSA honestly, completely, and early. Colleges only receive a set amount of money to hand out to students, so your best bet is to be one of the first students in line for financial aid.