Undergraduates apply for more federal aid than any other group — but more might be eligible.
Some 65% of high school seniors filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2018–2019 academic year. Why? It’s required if you want to be considered for federal loans, grants or work-study in college or graduate school. You also might need to fill out the FAFSA to qualify for other scholarship and grant programs. Generally, it takes less than an hour for you and your family to complete.
How many students fill out the FAFSA each year?
|Type of application||Number of applications|
Nearly 19 million students submitted the FAFSA in the 2017–2018 academic year, according to the Department of Education (DoE). The DoE processes applications for one academic year over 21 months, so this data includes applications submitted between October 1, 2016 and June 30, 2018.
This number also includes both first-time and returning applicants. Why all the resubmissions? The DoE bases your financial aid award on your family’s finances for the past year. You can’t receive aid at all without resubmitting your financials — and you might not qualify for the same amount each year.
|Academic year||Number of applications|
Who’s most likely and least likely to fill out the FAFSA
Undergraduates and students whose parents didn’t finish college are the most likely to fill out the FAFSA. On the flip side, students working toward teaching credentials or whose parents graduated from college are the least likely to fill out the FAFSA.
By type of degree
Almost half of FAFSA applicants are undergraduate students seeking their first bachelor’s degree. But only 12% of FAFSA applicants are pursuing a graduate or professional degree.
This could be because there are more federal aid options available to undergraduate students. It probably doesn’t help that the most favorable programs available to graduate students come with lifetime borrowing limits. But it also could be that many graduate programs offer full rides to students in exchange for work — especially master’s and PhD programs.
|Type of degree||% of applicants|
|First bachelor’s degree||48%|
|Graduate or professional degree||12%|
|Certificate or diploma||8%|
|Other or undecided||5%|
|Second bachelor’s degree||1%|
By parents’ education level
Students whose parents finished college are less likely to complete the FAFSA as those with parents who didn’t. This might be because parents with college degrees tend to earn more — and are more likely to be able to afford the cost of attendance. People who earn a bachelor’s degree earn nearly $36,000 more than those with a high school degree on average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
|Parents’ education level||% of applicants|
|Neither parent completed college or beyond||48%|
|One parent completed college or beyond||27%|
|Both parents completed college or beyond||25%|
By dependency status
Just slightly more independent students applied for federal student aid than dependent students. The DoE considers students to be independent based on several criteria, like being in graduate school, having kids or having served in the US armed forces.
This relatively even split makes sense. All dependent students are undergraduates, who are more likely to apply for federal aid. And independent students are more likely to support themselves financially, making them more likely to need federal aid than those who rely on their parents for money.
|Dependency status||% of applicants|
How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA online?
The FAFSA has over 100 questions, which can take anywhere from a half hour to an hour to complete. New applications take 35 minutes to complete on average. Renewing your application takes even less time — 23 minutes on average.
Students that qualify for an EZ FAFSA — based on factors like family size and income — don’t have to answer as many questions and can complete it in even less time.
Filling out the FAFSA for the first time
Filling out the FAFSA for the first time takes the longest since you need to fill in answers for each required question. It can take even longer if you’re a dependent student, since your parents also have to complete sections with their personal and financial information.
|Type of applicant||How long it takes to complete|
Renewing the FAFSA each year
It can take less time to renew the FAFSA than watch an episode of your favorite TV show. That’s because many sections are already pre-filled with the information you submitted last year.
|Type of applicant||How long it takes to complete|
Besides online, how else do people complete the FAFSA?
Almost all FAFSA applicants submit the form online. Less than 1% complete it by paper form, through their school or over the phone. But the DoE recently launched a mobile app that lets students complete the 2019–2020 FAFSA on their smartphone, meaning we could see a shift in these numbers in the coming years.
|How applicants completed the FAFSA||% of applicants|
|Online financial aid administrator||0.48%|
|Other electronic form — like through your school||0.02%|
|Over the phone||0.01%|
Why don’t some students fill out the FAFSA?
Only 65% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Why don’t more fill it out? Most either can afford college without financial aid or think they’re ineligible. Other reasons include a lack of information — and just planning on skipping college entirely.
|Reason why students didn’t fill out the FAFSA||% of students who didn’t fill out the FAFSA|
|Can afford college without financial aid||33%|
|Thought they wouldn’t qualify||32%|
|Didn’t want to take on debt||28%|
|Didn’t have enough information about how to complete it||23%|
|Didn’t plan on going to college after high school||22%|
|Didn’t know about it||15%|
|Thought it was too much work or too time consuming||9%|
Even if you don’t think you’re eligible for federal aid or want to avoid loans, it might be worth completing the FAFSA. That’s because many schools require all students to submit the FAFSA to be considered for any type of financial aid. Skip the FAFSA and you might miss out on grants and scholarships you could have otherwise qualified for.
How many students receive federal aid?
Nearly 11.5 million students received federal student aid for the 2016–2017 academic year. This number includes students receiving federal grants as well as student loans.
Federal student loans
Subsidized federal student loans are the most popular — and for a good reason. Students usually go for this loan first because it comes with the lowest rates available on federal loans and interest doesn’t start adding up until six months after you leave school. Unsubsidized loans for undergraduates are the second most common, likely because undergraduates submit the most applications.
|Type of federal loan||Number of recipients|
|Subsidized loans to undergraduate students||5,690,858|
|Unsubsidized loans to undergraduate students||5,572,542|
|Unsubsidized loans to graduate students||1,445,024|
|PLUS loans to parents||793,021|
|PLUS loans to graduate students||402,765|
|Total number of students who received loans||8,947,873|
Pell Grants for low-income students are the most common type of federal grant. This should come as no surprise since other federal programs are for specific types of students, namely education students and veterans.
|Type of federal gran||Number of students|
|Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant||77|
|Total number of students who received grants||7,216,204|
With nearly 11.5 million students receiving federal loans or grants out of the 19 million applicants, you have a good chance of qualifying for some sort of aid. And these numbers don’t even include students who received financial aid from their school or an outside organization based on their FAFSA.
Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify, filling out the FAFSA is worth a shot. It usually takes less than an hour the first time around, and most applicants get some kind of financial aid. You can learn more about how it all works with our guide to the FAFSA.
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