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How to Complete Your FAFSA When Applying to Online Programs

Federal grants and loans can make college degree dreams a reality.

“Start Here.” For 13 million students each year,1 the journey to a college degree and a bright future begins with those two simple words at the top of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online form or on the myStudentAid mobile app.

Federal Student Aid (FSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Education, distributes more than $120 billion in funding each year in the form of grants, work-study funds, and loans. “We are proud to sponsor millions of American minds pursuing their educational dreams,” FSA says.1

How to Complete Your FAFSA When Applying to Online Programs

With this and other funding available from private, nonprofit, and educational sources, more adult learners than ever are able to pursue degrees at accredited online universities.

1. Do a Little Prework

If you’re thinking about applying for federal aid, a few preliminaries can help smooth the process:

  • Check your FSA eligibility. Requirements include being a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen and having a Social Security Number. Peruse all the criteria at Who Gets Aid. FSA says that most people are eligible for financial aid for college or career school.
  • Learn about the different types of financial assistance available. Types of Aid explains federal aid options and discusses other possible funding sources like private and nonprofit organizations and colleges and universities. If you’re applying to Walden, the types of federal aid programs the university participates in include Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and the Direct Loan Program.
  • Select the proper FAFSA form. The form you select should reflect dates that correspond with the period of time you will be attending school and receiving aid. Of course, it’s always a good idea to check with your university to determine which FAFSA year application you should complete.

2. Gather Your Information

To complete your FAFSA, you’ll need to round up information and documents including: 2

  • 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 (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • A list of school(s) you are interested in attending. You can add up to 10 at a time. FSA says, “Be sure to add any college you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. The schools you list on your FAFSA form will automatically receive your FAFSA results electronically. They will use your FAFSA information to determine the types and amounts of financial aid you may receive. If you add a school and later decide not to apply for admission, that’s OK. The school likely won’t offer you aid until you’ve been accepted anyway.”3

3. Complete and Submit Your Form

To fill out and submit your FAFSA, you can:

Once online or on the app, create an FSA ID. You’ll use this username and password to log in and complete your FAFSA. It will also serve as your electronic signature when you’re ready to submit your application. Be sure to save your username and password somewhere safe because you’ll use it whenever you return to the FAFSA site.

The application has more than 100 questions, but you’ll only complete those that pertain to your individual circumstances. For that reason, you may never see many of the questions. “If you complete the FAFSA form online, then you may automatically skip some questions based on your answers to earlier questions,” FSA says.4

As you move through the application, click the question mark next to any question you’re unsure of to open a ”tool tip” with clarifying information. All of the “tool tip” content also can be seen in one place: 2019-20 Completing the FAFSA Form.

FSA says most people can complete the application in under one hour, but of course, it varies by individual. You can save your progress on the application for up to 45 days and return as needed. When you register, the site or app will prompt you to create a “save” code that lets you return to the work in progress.

Study the Questions

The questions fall into five categories, and the application requires you to complete one section before moving to the next. Groupings include:

  • Student Demographics: This is relatively standard fare like Social Security Number, address, residency, marital status, and driver’s license number (if you have one). Other questions cover topics like high school completion status and the level of college degree or certificate you’ll be working on.
  • School Selection: Here’s where you’ll be asked for your list of colleges and universities. You’ll need the Federal School Code for those you’re including. If you don’t know a code, you can find it on FSA’s Federal School Code List. Or, on the form you can enter the school’s name and the state in which it’s located and click “Search.” Note: When searching, the form requires both the school name and state. Walden University’s Federal School Code is 025042.
  • Dependency Status: Responses to these questions will determine whether you will need to provide your parents’ financial and demographic information or just your own. “The dependency guidelines are set by Congress and are different from those used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS),” the U.S. Department of Education explains. “Even if you live on your own, support yourself, and file taxes on your own, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes.”5 Learners deemed independent will automatically skip over the next section.
  • Parent Demographics: If this section pertains to you, you can learn more in Reporting Parent Information.
  • Financial Information: You’ll need tax return information, and you can follow the online instructions to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. If you need additional information, the Department of Education has a helpful infographic that explains this step in its article, “8 Steps to Filling Out the FAFSA Form.”

Submit the Form

Next, you’ll need to sign and submit the FAFSA form. You’ll be asked, “Are you a preparer?” If you completed the form yourself, the answer is no because in this case, preparers are people who charge a fee to complete and submit FAFSA forms. The FSA office says this is not necessary: “And remember, the first F in FAFSA stands for free—you shouldn’t pay to fill out the FAFSA form!” Next up is a summary of all the information you provided; review it carefully. Then click on “Provide student signature” and agree to the terms. You’ll be prompted to enter your FSA ID and password as an electronic signature.

After submitting your application, you’ll get a confirmation page with federal aid estimates. Remember, these are just estimates. The schools that accept you will send you individual financial aid offers.

You will also receive a Student Aid Report, which details your FAFSA results. Be sure to review the document—including the notes—and make any necessary changes. The comments might alert you to additional information your institution requires in order to complete your financial aid application.

Do You Need Help?

The FSA Information Center has answers, and from there you can e-mail questions or, during business hours, chat in English or Spanish with live technical support staff. (In the myStudentAid mobile app, you can find the contact information under the three parallel lines at the top right of the screen.) If you prefer to call, dial 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Still Have Questions?

We can help. If you haven’t yet applied to Walden University and have questions, please contact an Enrollment Specialist at 844-767-9524. If you are a current student, please contact a financial aid6 advisor at [email protected] or call 1-800-WALDENU (1-800-925-3368).

With completing the FAFSA off your to-do list, you’ll be one giant step closer to earning a degree that can broaden your career horizons, deepen your job satisfaction, and expand your earning potential. So get ready, get set, and start here: FAFSA.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

6For Washington State residents seeking information and resources about student loan repayment or seeking to submit a complaint relating to your student loans or student loan servicer, please visit or contact the Student Loan Advocate at [email protected].

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,