What is the FAFSA?

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA formMany parents of college-bound students feel anxious when completing financial aid forms, specifically the FAFSA.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA is the form families submit to apply for federal financial aid. It is used by the federal government, states, and colleges to award grants, work-study programs, and loans.  Completing the FAFSA forms is required in order to get the Student Aid Index(SAI) which was formerly called expected family contribution number or EFC. The SAI is generated after inputting your personal financial information into the FAFSA form. The process does require some detailed financial organization, but there is a lot of helpful information available to aid in this calculation. A good start would be to go to the government websites, FAFSA, and Student Aid, or check out the blog section on the PayForED website.

PayForED has created three comprehensive student loan solutions to help you plan your child’s educational future.  To help you better understand your Student Aid Index or SAI, we have created a list of the essential concepts a family should review to help improve your college decision.

Student Aid Index formerly Expected Family Contribution

Many people mistakenly believe that the Student Aid Index is one number. The actual calculation is really four separate numbers that are summed together: parents’ income, parents’ assets, student’s income, and student’s assets. Each of these components has separate rules and allowances.

A family will get their official SAI by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. This process only provides you with one number and does not break out the four separate numbers. You need to understand the four quadrants of the SAI to create a proper college-funding strategy.

The Department of Education manages the FAFSA process and SAI rules. The actual FAFSA process gives the family their SAI after completing the form. Currently, the government source does not provide the four-quadrant details of the Student Aid Index.  The PayForED College Cost Analyzer does provide the details of the SAI and can be used as an estimate before submitting your FAFSA.

FAFSA is Federal Methodology

The FAFSA process is also called the federal methodology. Any college or postsecondary education program that receives federal funds will require the student and family to submit a FAFSA form. This form has to be completed in order for the student to qualify for any federal financial aid. The exception to this rule is merit aid, which can be granted without any financial aid forms submitted.

Institutional Methodology

Some colleges require a second financial aid process called the institutional method. The most common of these methods is the CSS Profile managed by College Board. Generally, colleges that use a secondary process have a significant endowment that they are trying to distribute to their targeted applicants. The institutional methods will ask additional questions beyond the FAFSA, and there is often a fee to use these methods.

One of the biggest differences between the federal and institutional methodologies is how the colleges recognize the SAI. The FAFSA federal methodology value will be a fixed number at every school. The institutional method value will vary from college to college based on how each college develops its calculation. Most schools will not disclose your institutional number to you. This goes back to how schools use an admissions matrix to select their students and plan their revenue stream for the upcoming year. Remember, the matrix includes how much money you need and, indirectly, your ability to pay.  This process is called Enrollment Management and is often not explained to families.

Methodology Differences

There is a great deal of confusion between the two methods. An essential part of creating your funding strategy is determining your college list. If the colleges on your list do not include a CSS Profile school, you will not need to worry about completing the additional forms.

In general, the more competitive colleges use an institutional process. Over the past few years, the difference between the two methodologies has lessened. Listed in the table below are the major calculation differences between the federal and institutional methods.

Classification of the Applicant

The majority of college-bound students will apply for financial aid as dependent students. This means students receive 50 percent of their living expenses through the support of a parent or guardian. These rules are very similar to the IRS rules when determining the filing status of your taxes.

To qualify as an independent student, you must meet at least one of the following conditions:

  • Be twenty-four years or older
  • Be married
  • At the beginning of the coming school year, be working on a master’s or doctorate degree program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, Ph.D., EdD, graduate certificate, etc.)
  • Be currently serving on active duty in the US armed forces for purposes other than training (if you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, you must be on active duty for other than state or training purposes)
  • Be a veteran of the US armed forces.
  • Have—or will have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you prior to the application year you are applying for
  • Have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through the upcoming year
  • At any time since you turned thirteen, both your parents were deceased, you were in foster care, or you were a dependent or ward of the court.
  • It has been decided by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship.
  • At any time on or after July 1 of the previous year, you were determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by a) your high school or district homeless liaison, b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program.

Source: Department of Education

The advantage of being an independent student is that the SAI will generally be lower. A lower SAI will provide increased financial aid for the student in most cases. An independent student will also get an increase in Federal Direct loan limits—this means an additional $4,000 of direct unsubsidized loans per year.

The independent student will not have the parents’ quadrants to complete the FAFSA form. As a result, the parent’s assets and income will not be part of the SAI calculation. This could be an advantage.

In the past, some students tried to establish themselves as independent when they weren’t. The rules are very strict now, and with the IRS link, it is almost impossible to achieve an independent classification without one of the requirements listed above.

SAI Four Components

Now let’s dive into the SAI components so you can better understand the major parts of the SAI calculation.

The first component is the parents’ income; for most applicants, this will be the largest number of the SAI. It is based on the family’s structure, the number of dependents, adjusted gross income, and state of residence. These terms are very similar to your federal tax terms, as the two systems are now linked together.

The parent income section of the calculation is progressive. As the family’s Adjusted Gross Income increases, a higher percentage of the multiplier is put to that number.  This will result in the SAI calculation increasing more quickly.

Under the FAFSA or federal method, in the years for which you apply for financial aid, any deferred compensation (e.g., 401K, 403b, and IRA contributions) gets added back in as income for financial aid purposes. For the income calculation of SAI, the value of the retirement account is not included.  Only the employee’s contribution is included.  It still goes into the tax-deferred account. This is also true for the institutional method, but the retirement account value may be included in the asset section of that calculation. This information appears on the person’s W2 or 1040 form.

For the parents’ FAFSA asset calculation, nonretirement assets are all included.  Small farms, small family businesses, and home equity are also excluded in the 2024-25 FAFSA submission. There is an allowance amount based on the tax-filing status and the age of the oldest FAFSA-filing parent. The asset amount that exceeds the allocation amount will be multiplied by 5.64 percent to arrive at the parent asset calculated amount.

For dependent student income, the rules are very simple. Since dependent students are included on another person’s tax return, their income allowances are limited by the state they reside in and the federal income exception amount. Amounts over the allowances are weighted at 50 percent.

For the student asset section, there are no allowances, and assets are weighted at 20 percent. This is why many people think it’s a good idea to get assets out of the student’s name. People compare the student percentage of 20 percent to the parents’ percentage of 5.64 percent and disregard the cost of attendance as part of their decision. This is a common error.

Be careful when liquidating student assets. The first issue is the tax consequence of liquidating assets. For dependent college students up to the age of twenty-four, if there is a taxable gain from the sale of assets, the “kiddie tax” rules will apply. This means the first $1,150 (2021 limit) of unearned income will be tax-free, the next $1,150 will be taxed at the child’s marginal rate, and any amount over that will be taxed at the parent’s rate. The kiddie tax limits change periodically based on the tax code. Depending on the amount of gain, a very high tax rate could be charged due to the parent’s income level.

The next issue is ownership of the account or asset. If the primary social security number on the account is the student’s, then it is legally their money.  Legally this money must be spent on the student’s behalf. You need to have documentation to properly liquidate a Uniform Gift to Minor Account (UGMA account), which is the type of account issued to most children under the age of eighteen.

FAFSA Timing Is Important

There are two important aspects of maximizing your financial aid award: The first is the timing of the financial decision for the FAFSA reporting, and the second is the impact of other siblings.  The 2023-24 FAFSA will be the last year of the multi-child discount for families that have multiple children in college at the same time.  This is part of the FAFSA Simplification change.

The FAFSA form usually becomes available on October 1 of each year and will be used for financial aid packages for students. The Department of Education (DOE) announced on March 21, 2023 that the FAFSA will be delayed until December for school year 2024-25.  This would normally be available on October 1, 2023.  As stated above, the information used to complete the FAFSA form is based on the prior year’s tax return.

The tax year and school year do not match. As an example, for entering college freshmen, the school years that will be used to complete the FAFSA are their second semester of junior year and their first semester of senior year of high school. With that understood, the best time to review your financial aid position is the tax year when your child is a second-semester sophomore and first-semester junior in high school.

It is also important to take into consideration when other siblings will be in college at the same time. This is why a four-year cash flow can help you determine the best college value analysis and better allow you to determine the debt structure for paying for college.  The multi-family discount for college will be eliminated starting in the financial aid school year of 2024-25.

Having a better understanding of your SAI will allow you to make a better paying-for-college strategy. Doing a four-year cash analysis helps families project their total financial cost of college. Currently, most schools will only give you a one-year projection.

What is Prior Prior?

Starting October 1, 2016, a new method of submitting the FAFSA started.  This change was called the Prior Prior FAFSA. Under the Prior Prior FAFSA process, the SAI or Student Aid Index income are based on the tax year two years prior to submission.  In most cases, due to the Prior Prior FAFSA, families are able to use the data retrieval tool (DRT) to download their income numbers from the IRS system.  This reduces the confusion on which tax information needs to be included in the FAFSA submission.  Families of high school senior students are able to get their SAI number in December for 2023 , typically this was October 1st.   The student and parent will still need to input their assets, but it makes the federal or FAFSA method easier.

As an example, the graduating high school class of 2024 will be using the 2022 taxes to complete the FAFSA.  This is the reason why it is called Prior Prior. Due to this change, parents of younger students will need to move forward with their financial positioning analysis.  The best time to review a family’s financial aid positioning will be the tax year before the student’s 12/31 sophomore year in high school.

It does simplify some of the confusion regarding the income section of the FAFSA.  Now families are able to use the DRT system to populate sections of the FAFSA.

Creating a Federal Student Identification or FSA ID

Before you start your FAFSA, the student and at least one parent must create their FSA ID.  The FSA ID is the acronym for Federal Student Aid Identification and is the login and electronic signature process used by the Department of Education.  The FSA ID replaced the FAFSA Pin on May 10th, 2015. For students, parents, and borrowers, the FSA ID will be the electronic method used to apply for federal student aid and access any federal student aid records online.   This login process authenticates the user and allows them to access the following websites or processes:

  • FAFSA on the Web
  • NSLDS® Student Access
  • StudentLoans.gov
  • StudentAid.gov
  • TEACH Grant

The FSA ID login process improves security since you create a user-selected username and password.  The person will enter less information with this single sign-on process.  The FSA ID eliminates the need for people to enter personal identifiers such as Social Security, name, and date of birth each time they want to login.   The FSA ID gives people a lifetime ID. The FSA ID is a similar process to most other secure login systems used for your banking and credit cards.

To establish the FSA ID click here.

Who can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?

The IRS data retrieval tool (DRT) is available to parents who have completed a personal income tax submission with the IRS using the IRS form 1040.   This online DRT is able to transfer the tax-return information directly onto the FAFSA form. Using this tool is the easiest way to provide your tax information to the school.

This tool updates the FAFSA information with the actual tax information that you have submitted to the IRS. It provides the actual income information to the school’s financial aid office and prevents fraud. This method eliminates the need to send copies of your tax returns to the college. Colleges that require the CSS Profile will still require you to submit various tax returns for multiple years.  It is an essential step in the verification process for the colleges in the financial aid process.

For some people, the DRT will not be available. This would include people with complicated tax returns, those who are still on extensions, and anyone who had submitted an amended return for the tax year needed.  If you are in that situation, you should contact the college to ask what information is required to complete the FAFSA verification. Many will require your tax transcript, which is another IRS process that is more time-consuming.

When and how you submit your taxes will impact when the information is available through the IRS system.  It normally takes two to six weeks after the taxes are submitted before it is available to the DRT system.  If you are on a payment plan or have a tax bill outstanding, your tax information will not be available for the DRT process.

To use the DRT tool, you need to enter through the online FAFSA form.

  • The taxpayer must have filed a current tax return.
    • The electronic submission method will provide better availability
  • The taxpayer must have a valid Social Security number (SSN)
  • The taxpayer must have signed up and created a federal student aid identification or FSA ID
  • Taxpayer’s address and name must exactly match those on the IRS Tax form

There are certain situations where the IRS DRT will not be available to be used for the FAFSA verification. They are as follows:

  • The taxpayer is submitting an amended tax return
  • The taxpayer is submitting for an extension
    • Once submitted, the verification will be done, and the award will be reevaluated
  • The taxpayer did not need to file a federal tax return
  • The taxpayer filed a Puerto Rico or foreign income tax return

If the school wants verification of your taxes but you are unable to use the IRS DRT, you can get an official transcript form from the Internal Revenue Service. Go to www.irs.gov to find information and the form. It is always important to check with your school’s financial aid department to make sure all your information has been received according to the deadlines listed.


The Student Aid Report (SAR) is the confirmation report that is generated after the FAFSA is submitted.  It is the information that will be sent to the colleges. Normally it is available 2 – 5 days after the FAFSA is submitted.  It is highly recommended that you review this report to confirm your submitted information.

This is also a big difference between the FAFSA and Institutional financial aid methods.  The SAR confirms your information and generates the Student Aid Index or SAI. The Federal SAI is the same number at every college.  The Institutional SAI will vary by college and is often not disclosed to the student and family.

Who Should complete the FAFSA?

The FAFSA should be completed by every family even if you do not think you will qualify for financial aid. Completing the FAFSA allows the family to structure their student loans better, show the college your ability to pay, and qualify for need-based financial aid. It is the only way a family and student can be eligible for federal loans.

It can also be part of a paying-for-college strategy if your child is thinking of going to post-graduate school, as undergraduate loans have a lower interest rate than graduate loans.  It just takes planning!

What Is FAFSA Summary

The FAFSA process is a cornerstone process for paying for college.  The 2024-25 FAFSA is the last year until the full impact of FAFSA Simplification will occur.  For proper planning, students and parents will need to properly plan for this change since the new rules can change some people’s financial aid positions significantly.

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