What Students and Families Need to Know About The FAFSA

Financial Literacy

As a responsible private lender, Sallie Mae advises students and families to explore free money like scholarships and grants before borrowing. The gateway to this aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which gives students and families access to $114 billion in scholarships, grants, state-based and federal financial aid. Too many families, however, miss out on this critical aid because of persistent misconceptions about their eligibility or confusion around how to complete the application, resulting in billions of dollars left unclaimed each year.

In fact, about a third of families skipped the form altogether in the 2022-2023 academic year, according to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College 2023 report, with 20% saying they had a problem with the application or that it was too complicated. In addition, 72% of families could not identify when the FAFSA® became available. Adding to the complications this year are significant glitches and delays resulting from the rollout of a new FAFSA with fewer questions. While the intent was to streamline and simplify the process and expand eligibility for need-based aid like Pell grants, persistent implementation issues have left students and families frustrated and financial aid offers from schools delayed.

While these delays point to broader issues with the federal financing system for higher education, it’s still critical for families to complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA® is an important first step for students and families to help make college more accessible and affordable. Sallie Mae supports simplification of the FAFSA® and is improving awareness to help more students and families connect to scholarships, grants, and other critical aid.

As an education solutions provider, we provide free tools including a step-by-step FAFSA guide, information,  and webinars to help students and families navigate the new FAFSA and complete it. We also offer free resources like Scholarship Search by Sallie to help students and families find and apply for scholarships.

Here are five important points that students and families should know about the FAFSA®:

1. All students—regardless of family income—should complete the form.

Most families—88%—know to submit the FAFSA® each year so that their school student qualifies for financial aid, but not all families know that every student is eligible to apply. Some families believe their income is too high for their student to qualify for aid, a most frequently mentioned reason why families didn’t submit the FAFSA® last year.

The reality is all students, regardless of income, should complete the form. Some of that aid, like scholarships, grants and state-based aid, is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. That’s why the sooner families can complete the FAFSA®, the better. And while the FAFSA was delayed in 2023, the release date for the 2025-2026 school year should return to the normal open date of October 1.

2. The FAFSA® is free.

Families should never pay to submit the FAFSA®. Filing is free, period. A paid service will not get students more aid. Sallie Mae offers students a step-by-step guide for navigating the new FAFSA, but they can also check with their high school, local college, and financial aid office for assistance.

3. Fill out the “special circumstances” form when financial information changes.

Students and families—including those attending graduate school—should complete the FAFSA® every year they are in school. That said, sometimes income and other factors may change due to circumstances such as a job loss or medical emergency. That’s when completing a “special circumstances” form may make sense. The form is available from college financial aid offices and can help students receive additional aid in certain situations.

4. List schools on the FAFSA® even if it’s not a final list.

If students don’t list all colleges they’re considering on their FAFSA®, then the schools won’t know the student is interested in applying for grant money from them. Students should also always list state schools first in case they offer additional state-based aid on a priority basis.

5. There is no age limit.

Federal financial aid is just as available to non-traditional students in the 24- to 35-year-old range as it is to students in their late teens and early twenties. There’s no age limit for receiving federal financial aid—so all students and families should apply.

FAFSA is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid

It’s Time to Meaningfully Expand the Pell Grant

Education Landscape

Without question, higher education opens doors of opportunity. Americans with some form of college degree typically earn significantly more in their lifetime than those without a degree.

The median lifetime earnings of an American with a bachelor’s degree is $2.8 million; for an associate degree, it’s $2 million. In contrast, those with a high school diploma have $1.6 million in median lifetime earnings, according to a report from Georgetown University.

In the more than five decades since it launched, the Pell Grant has helped low- and middle-income students unlock a path to economic prosperity by providing critical need-based funding that does not have to be repaid. Since 1980, the Pell Grant has helped more than 211.8 million students access — and complete — higher education.

Nearly seven million undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant each year.  At the same time about $3.6 billion in Pell Grant awards went unclaimed last year, meaning students are missing out on millions of dollars of free aid that could support their higher education. 

It’s time to increase awareness of the Pell Grant and enhance it to meet the needs of 21st-century students, many of whom are first-generation college students, from underserved or underrepresented communities, or exploring non-traditional paths to higher education.

Reforms — such as meaningfully increasing the size of the Pell Grant or allowing it to be applied to more programs — could increase access to higher education and limit the potential for overborrowing, as would informing families about the importance of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A modernized Pell Grant could put more students on a path to long-term success.

Raising Awareness About FAFSA Completion

To receive a Pell Grant, students must first complete the FAFSA. Our research shows that only 20% of families with a student planning to pursue higher education feel very prepared to complete the FAFSA, and only a third of first-generation families plan to submit the form — even while 42% of them agree that more grant aid would make college more affordable.

Recent updates to simplify the FAFSA application have made the application more streamlined. The updated FAFSA may help significantly more students from low-income backgrounds receive Pell Grants and potentially 1.5 million more students receive the maximum amount than previous years, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Raising awareness about completing the FAFSA is key to helping families unlock more aid for higher education.

Meaningfully Increase Funding

A study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that boosting the size of the Pell Grant would increase college retention and enrollment rates for low-income students. A separate analysis from the Urban Institute concluded that doubling the Pell Grant maximum amount would lead to higher grant awards for students of color, a change that could help to address decades-old education inequalities.

The Pell Grant was increased by $500 last year, but with inflation and higher costs of living, the increase isn’t significant. Sallie Mae supports meaningfully increasing the Pell Grant to meet the needs of students today.

Policymakers should also consider allowing the Pell Grant to be used for short-term skills training programs, such as coding boot camps or trade schools. Expanding the Pell Grant would help students start a new career more affordably while simultaneously addressing skills gaps.

Supporting Those With The Most Need

Our federal student loan program has been broken for far too long, often impacting those who need the most support. Meaningfully expanding the Pell Grant, and increasing awareness of its benefits and the associated application process, are critical to ensure that the federal higher education financing system does what it was intended to — facilitate access to education for those with the greatest need.