For many students, the cost of attending college is out of reach. Tuition, room and board, and other expenses have risen exponentially in recent years to the point where most prospective and current college students need some sort of financial aid to cover the difference between what they can afford to pay for college and the cost of attending school.

Qualifying for financial aid can seem like a confusing process. There are many myths about how to apply, the best way to get aid, and how you can maximize your chances of getting aid. The truth is that the process is simple: the best way to get financial aid - at least to start - is to apply through the United States Department of Education. 

The process is free, doesn't take very long, and is the best way to determine if you qualify for some of the billions of dollars in grants available as well as federal student loans. The federal government uses objective guidelines and formulas to make its determinations, so the process is relatively predictable for most students. 

Read on to learn more about how you can qualify for financial aid.

What are the Basic Eligibility Requirements for Financial Aid?

As an initial matter, there are some minimum eligibility requirements that must be met in order to qualify for federal student aid. Before applying for financial aid, you should review these requirements to make sure that you are eligible.

First, you must be a United States citizen or an eligible noncitizen and have a Social Security number. According to the Department of Education, eligible non-citizens include U.S. nationals, permanent residents (people with a green card), or those who fall into certain other categories, such as refugees, people whose asylum applications were granted, or parolees. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you should check with your school’s financial aid office to learn more about whether you will be considered an eligible noncitizen.

Second, to be eligible for federal financial aid, you must have a high school diploma or GED certificate to apply.

Third, you must be enrolled or accepted as a student in an eligible degree or certificate program to apply for financial aid through the federal government.

Applying for Financial Aid With the FAFSA

If you meet the eligibility requirements for financial aid, you must next apply for it using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is more commonly referred to as the FAFSA. This application can be completed online through the Department of Education’s website, and it takes most applicants about one hour or less to complete.

How to Pay for College if You Don't Qualify for Financial Aid From the Federal Government

It requires submitting basic information, including your Social Security number; your alien registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen); your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned; bank statements and records of investments (if applicable); records of untaxed income (if applicable); and a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. Students who do not file a FAFSA cannot receive federal student aid.

By submitting a FAFSA, students are eligible for some of the $120 billion in grants that the Department of Education awards each year. Many colleges and universities also use the FAFSA as the basis for awarding need-based financial aid. This makes completing the FAFSA all the more important for students who will need financial aid in order to attend college.

Importantly, when submitting a FAFSA, you will be required to submit a certification that states that (1) you do not have any federal student loans that are currently in default; (2) you do not owe any funds on a federal student grant; and (3) you agree to use federal student aid funds exclusively for educational expenses.

What Other Options Are Available?

If you do not qualify for federal student aid or the need-based aid offered by your college or university, you might still qualify for non-need-based federal student aid. Students can qualify for this type of aid even if their income or their family’s income exceeds the maximum threshold for need-based financial aid.

Federal student loans are a great option for many students. Although there are limits on the amount of money that can be borrowed, federal student loans tend to have lower, fixed interest rates and more favorable terms than private student loans.

Qualifying for financial aid can help make college more affordable for students who may otherwise struggle to pay tuition and other expenses. The filing process is relatively simple and straightforward and should be undertaken by anyone who may be eligible for federal student aid or who may need federal student loans.