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Federal Financial Aid: Do You Qualify?

According to the College Board, about two-thirds of full-time college undergrads receive financial aid, and a little under half of that aid comes from the federal government. If you're thinking about applying to colleges soon, chances are you've wondered if you qualify for some of that money. Read on to learn the U.S. Department of Education's financial aid eligibility requirements.

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Can I Get Money from the Feds?

College funding can come from a variety of places - your prospective college or university, private organizations and individuals (in the form of scholarships or loans), your state government or the federal government.

Everyone has to fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to find out if they qualify for federal financial aid. The FAFSA is used by Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, to determine an applicant's eligibility for loans, grants or work-study aid. The information from your FAFSA is then used by colleges to create a financial aid package that could include grants, loans or work-study monies from the federal government.

Many factors play into your eligibility, so take a look at the list below. If you meet these requirements, chances are you can look forward to some of your higher education being subsidized by Uncle Sam.

Eligibility for Federal Student Aid

Demonstrate Financial Need

The federal government determines your financial need by calculating your household's Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Need depends on a number of situational factors, including your parents' income, the type of colleges you apply to and your own financial standing.

Colleges then use this number and the Cost of Attendance (COA) to calculate how much you will need to pay for school. The dollar amount derived by subtracting EFC from COA equals your financial need.

Have a High School Diploma or Equivalent

If you didn't graduate from a traditional high school, the government will accept completion of approved equivalent programs, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or completion of a home-school curriculum approved by your state.

Be Enrolled/Accepted in a Degree Program

In other words, you can't get financial aid without having a school where you can spend it. You can, of course, complete your FAFSA prior to being accepted anywhere, but you must be enrolled before you receive any financial aid. For many students, the decision to apply to a college is heavily dependent on what sort of aid will be available.

Be a U.S. Citizen or Eligible Non-Citizen

You might already know that U.S. Nationals (from American Samoa or Swain's Island) and U.S. permanent residents with a green card are considered eligible non-citizens. However, any of the following groups are also considered eligible non-citizens: refugees, victims of human trafficking, those who've been granted asylum, Cuban-Haitian entrants, conditional entrants, and parolees.

Have a Valid Social Security Number

This one's self-explanatory.

Register for Selective Service (if required)

Per the Selective Service website, 'almost all male U.S. citizens, and male immigrants living in the U.S., who are 18 through 25, are required to register with Selective Service.' Exceptions include citizens of that demographic who are confined to medical or correctional institutions, or those who cannot function in public without caregivers. Non-citizens are exempt if, for example, they're in the U.S. on student or visitor visas or for diplomatic reasons. There are other exceptions to these rules, so be sure to visit the Selective Service website to confirm whether or not you're required to register.

Keep Up Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) in School

Each individual school assesses your SAP with their own qualifications, typically by looking at your GPA, the time you've spent in your degree program and how many credits you've successfully earned out of those attempted. Failure to meet those standards can place you on aid probation or outright suspension. If you become ineligible for aid, you may be responsible for returning the money you've already received. Read up on your school's qualifications and make sure you understand them.

Certify You Haven't Defaulted on Any Previous Federal Student Loans/Grants

You can't get new federal aid if you haven't handled your loans responsibly in the past.

Commit to Only Using Your Loan for Educational Purposes

The government wants to know you'll be using their money expressly to educate yourself, not to buy new toys or take a vacation.

Legal Considerations

Certain criminal records will cause you to be ineligible for federal financial aid, including conviction for selling or possessing drugs, or for sexual offenses. In the case of drug convictions prior to receiving financial aid, eligibility can be regained by passing two unannounced drug tests or completing an approved rehabilitation program.

In either case, the Department of Education notes it's still important to fill out your FAFSA forms, because you could still be eligible for state or private aid. Another note - Students who are convicted of a drug offense while receiving federal aid might have the aid suspended or even be required to return the money.

Watch this video to learn more about filling out the FAFSA.

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