It’s normal to have questions about Financial aid, especially if you have never applied for it before. One of the most common questions is, “Do I qualify for financial aid?” There are many myths and misconceptions about who is eligible to receive financial aid, so it’s important to have all the facts when going through this process.
Why This Matters
In this context, financial aid refers to money for college provided by the federal government in the form of federal student loans, grants, and work-study jobs. Other types of financial aid include scholarships from your college or outside sources, and private student loans from banks or other institutions. These types of funding have their own eligibility requirements, which may or may not be connected to your eligibility for federal student aid.
The only way to know exactly what type of financial aid you qualify for is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When you (or your parent, if you are a dependent) complete the FAFSA, you will enter personal financial information that is used to calculate an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your school’s financial aid office will use this number, along with the cost of attendance at the college or university, to determine what types of aid and how much money you are eligible to receive.
Even if you or your parents think that you are not eligible for any federal financial aid, it is important to complete the FAFSA each year. Individual schools and states use this information to determine eligibility for scholarships, grants, and other types of non-federal student aid. Sometimes things change, and where you didn’t qualify for financial aid last year, you qualify this year. Thanks to the online application process, and the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, completing the FAFSA is simpler and faster than ever.
Do I Qualify for Financial Aid?
To determine if you meet basic eligibility requirements for financial aid, ask yourself the following questions. Please note, these questions apply to the student, not the person completing the FAFSA, such as a parent or guardian.
Am I a U.S. citizen, or an eligible noncitizen?
You are considered an eligible noncitizen if you meet any of the following criteria:
- U.S. national (including natives of American Samoa or Swains Island)
- U.S. permanent resident with a Permanent Resident Card
- An individual who has an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94) from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing one of the following designations:
- Asylum Granted
- Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)
- Conditional Entrant (valid only if issued prior to April 1, 1980)
- Victim of human trafficking
- Parolee (must be paroled into the United States for at least one year and you must be able to provide evidence from the USCIS that you are in the United States for other than a temporary purpose and that you intend to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.)
- “Battered immigrant-qualified alien” who is a victim of abuse by your citizen or permanent resident spouse, or you are the child of a person designated as such under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
- A citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau. If this is the case, you may be eligible for only certain types of federal student aid:
Do I demonstrate financial need?
In this case, “financial need” is defined as the difference between the cost of attendance at a school, and your Student Aid Index (SAI). Your SAI is calculated based on your FAFSA, and remains the same regardless of the cost of attendance at the school you choose.
The SAI is a measure of you or your family’s financial strength. It’s based on taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits such as unemployment or Social Security. Due to changes implemented as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act, the SAI will no longer include the number of students a family currently has in college as part of its calculations, as the EFC did.
Each individual school will calculate your aid eligibility by subtracting your SAI from the school’s cost of attendance (COA). This is why it’s important to send your completed FAFSA to all the schools you are considering attending, as your financial aid eligibility will vary from school to school.
Based on your demonstrated financial need, the school will create a financial aid package informing you of how much and what types of aid you can receive.
Am I enrolling in a degree or certificate program at an eligible school?
The institution and type of program in which you are enrolling also affects whether you qualify for financial aid.
In accordance with the Higher Education Act, which established federal financial aid programs, there are certain guidelines institutions must meet in order to receive financial aid benefits for students. Institutions must have accreditation from a nationally recognized accrediting agency, or approval from a recognized state approval agency, in the case of certain vocational schools. Schools must also be authorized by the state in which they are located, and receive approval from the U.S. Department of Education through a program participation agreement.
The individual program in which you are enrolling matters, too. Degree and certificate programs must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, be longer than one year in length, and lead to gainful employment in order for students to receive financial aid to pay for those programs. During your college search process, you should confirm that the school and program you are interested in attending is eligible for financial aid.
Additional Qualifications for Financial Aid
In addition to the basic eligibility criteria, students must also meet the following qualifications:
- Have a valid Social Security Number (if you are a U.S. citizen) – Students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau are exempt from this requirement.
- Demonstrated eligibility to obtain a college or career school education – This means students must have a high school diploma, or a recognized equivalent, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or have completed high school in an approved homeschool setting. Students who were enrolled in college or career school prior to July 1, 2012, or are currently enrolled in an eligible career pathway program may show they’re qualified to obtain a higher education by passing an approved ability-to-benefit test (if you don’t have a diploma or GED, a college can administer a test to determine whether you can benefit from the education offered at that school) or completing six credit hours, 225 clock hours, or equivalent course work toward a degree or certificate.
- Sign the certification statement on the FAFSA – This confirms that you are not currently in default on any federal student loans, that you do not currently owe money on a federal student grant, and that you will use your federal student aid for educational purposes only.
- Maintain satisfactory academic progress – Once you are enrolled in college or career school, you must remain in good academic standing and meet your school’s standards for satisfactory academic progress to continue receiving financial aid.
- Submit a new FAFSA each year – Your financial aid eligibility, as determined by your FAFSA, is only valid for one academic year. Students or their parents must submit a new, updated FAFSA for each year that they want to receive financial aid. FAFSA deadlines vary by college and state, so it’s important to be aware of any FAFSA deadlines that apply to you.
Students in the following special circumstances may or may not qualify for financial aid, or may need to meet additional eligibility requirements:
Resources provided by:
What is financial aid?
Financial aid is broken down into three categories: gift aid, loans, and work-study.
Gift aid is broken down into grants and scholarships. Grants and scholarships are free money to the student, meaning they do not have to be repaid. Grants and scholarships can be awarded by the federal government, states, colleges, and private funders or organizations.
- Grants are awarded to students based on financial need
- Some examples of grants include:
- The Pell Grant is awarded by the U.S. federal government to eligible students based on their family’s income, assets, family size, and other factors. The maximum Pell Grant amount was $7,395 for the 2023-2024 school year.
- The Cal Grant is need-based and requires a minimum of a 2.0 GPA, with additional funds for students with a 3.0 or higher.
- Scholarships can be awarded to students based on many factors, including financial need, academic achievement, athletic achievement, community involvement, ethnic or cultural background, etc.
Loans are a type of financial aid that students and parents can borrow to help pay for college. Loans must be repaid, typically with interest. Loans can be offered by the federal government, the college itself, and private lenders.
- Federal Direct Subsidized Loans
- Available to undergraduate students with financial need
- Interest is paid by the government while borrowers are enrolled at least half time
- 4.99% fixed interest rate as of July 1, 2023 (resets each July 1st)
- Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans
- Available to any undergraduate and graduate student, regardless of need
- Borrowers are responsible for all interest that accrues
- 4.99% fixed interest rate as of July 1, 2023 (resets each July 1st)
- Federal PLUS Loan
- The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS Loan) is a loan for the parent(s) of undergraduate students.
- Parents can borrow up to the full Cost of Attendance, minus any financial aid the student has received. PLUS loans have a fixed interest rate of 7.54% as of July 1, 2023
- Eligibility is based on a credit check, which determines whether a parent has an adverse credit history
Work-study is the third main type of financial aid. It provides students with a part-time job either on or off-campus, to earn money to help pay for college or personal expenses. work-study is usually funded by the federal government, but some states and colleges sponsor work-study programs as well.
How do I apply for financial aid?
Here is the breakdown of how to apply for financial aid:
- Register for the FSA ID
- The Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is a self-selected username and password that is unique for each user. The FSA ID serves as a legal signature in order to submit the FAFSA. Both the student and one parent (dependent students only) will need to create unique and separate FSA IDs.
- Submit the FAFSA or the CA Dream Act Application
- FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is required by all colleges and many technical programs and is available in December. The FAFSA is an application for financial aid from the government and is required in order to be considered for any federal or state-issued financial aid, in addition to some institutional funds.
- For students who cannot complete the FAFSA due to their citizenship status, they can complete the CA Dream Act Application.
- Submit the CSS Profile (if applicable)
- The CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) is an additional financial aid form required by a large number of private colleges and a few public institutions to determine eligibility for institutional funds only – money from the college.
- Review Student Aid Report & Address Any Issues
- The Student Aid Report (SAR) is a summary of all information reported on the FAFSA and is usually available to view a few days after a student submits the FAFSA. It provides important information about potential issues with a student’s FAFSA, the Expected Family Contribution, and other important information.
- Complete Verification & Other Follow-up Tasks
- Verification is a process in which the federal government and colleges can request copies of specific documents from a student to confirm the accuracy of the information reported on financial aid forms. Some students are randomly selected for verification while others are selected due to conflicting information that the colleges are seeing on the financial aid forms.
- Review and Compare Financial Aid Offers
- Financial aid offers typically arrive from February through May, after notification of admissions acceptance. Financial aid offers to show the amount and type of aid that has been offered to a student at a particular college – a combination of federal, state, and institutional aid. These offers can arrive in many ways such as: regular postal mail, email, or more commonly via the college’s online portal.
- Use the College Cost Calculator, a free online tool that helps students compare financial aid offers and the total costs of attending different colleges. Find it at uAspire.org/Calculator.
- Pay Tuition Deposit
- Once the student has decided which college they will attend they will likely need to pay a tuition deposit which holds their spot in the first-year class and for housing (if applicable). The tuition deposit amounts can range from $200 – $1000 and vary from college to college.
- Note that in most cases, tuition deposits are NOT refundable. Students should compare all financial aid offers and only send a deposit to the college that they plan to attend.
FAFSA vs. Dream Act: What’s the Difference?
Money is one of the biggest deciding factors for incoming college students. Depending on how much aid students are able to receive, it then shifts what college they attend, how many semesters they will attend, how much they will loan, etc. Immigrant Rising’s FAFSA vs Dream Act info sheet gives a quick overview of the differences between FAFSA and the Dream Act as to what they are, who can apply, and the requirements for each. Below is some FAQ’s that can help you decide which aid to apply for!
Who is eligible?
- Legal Permanent Residents
- Eligible Non- Citizens (per FAFSA)
- T visa holders
DREAM Act AB 540/ SB 68 Eligible Students Who Are:
- Undocumented individuals;
- DACAmented individuals; and U visa holders
- TPS Protected Status
Who is NOT eligible?
- DACAmented students
- Undocumented individuals
- Any visa holder (except U)
- Legal Permanent Residents
- Eligible Non-Citizens (per FAFSA)
Requirements for Financial Aid to be Awarded:
- Department of Homeland Security and SocialSecurity Administration crosscheck student name, social security number, and birthdate to verify that all FAFSA eligibility requirements are met;
- All other eligibility for federal and state aid is met
- School verifies student meets AB 540/ SB 68
- Some schools may require a student’s AB 540/ SB 68 status to be approved prior to awarding state financial aid
- All other eligibility state aid is met
Requirements for Financial Aid to Be Released to Pay Outstanding Balances:
- Admission into an approved degree or certificate degree
- Minimum Unit requirements
- Satisfactory Academic Progress
Approval as AB 540/ SB 68 student and:
- Admission into an approved degree or
- Minimum Unit requirements
- Satisfactory Academic Progress
For more information visit FAFSA vs CA Dream Act – Apply to the Correct Financial Aid in CA!
For a student who is a citizen or legal permanent resident but whose parents are undocumented, you must follow specific steps to ensure you will be considered for federal aid through FAFSA.
- Paying Resident Fees at a CCC, CSU, or UC Submitting the FAFSA Application
- When students are financially dependent on their parent(s), Residency for Tuition Purposes in CCCs, CSUs, and UCs can be based on the residency of the parents when the student is under a specific age.
- However, students who are citizens, legal permanent residents, or eligible non-citizens but whose parents are undocumented should be classified as residents in most instances if their parents meet all other residency requirements for tuition purposes. Keep in mind that this is a complicated process and not all students are accurately classified.
- If you are classified as a non-resident but believe that you meet the residency requirements for tuition purposes in CA, contact the residency officer at your campus. If you are unable to resolve it at that level, contact the Chancellor’s Office of the CCC, CSU, or the President’s Office of the UC regarding their policy on residency for students who are U.S. citizens with undocumented parents.
- If you cannot be classified as a resident, check to see if you meet the eligibility for AB 540/SB 68 and submit the nonresident tuition exemption form (AB 540 affidavit), along with any required proof (transcripts).
- Being classified as a resident for tuition purposes or AB 540/SB 69 student is key to paying resident fees and being able to receive state-based financial aid.
- Submitting the FAFSA Application
- Students who are citizens, legal permanent residents, or eligible non-citizens, but whose parent(s) is/ are undocumented are eligible to submit the FAFSA application and receive federal financial aid.
- Students should apply at fafsa.ed.gov but should pay attention to these specific details if their parents are undocumented:
- Students should obtain their own FSA ID
- Parent(s) should include their information, if required
- Parents should be sure to use 000’s for the Social Security Number (SSN) if they do not have a valid SSN. They should not use an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The application will request confirmation if you use zeros. Say yes.
- Students should sign the FAFSA with their FSA ID and parents should “Print signature page” to sign the FAFSA because they cannot obtain an FSA ID
- Students should save one copy of the signature page and mail the other to FAFSA. It can take up to six weeks to process, so be sure to send it early!
- Students should check on www.fafsa.ed.gov to confirm that the parents signature has been received. The student’s FAFSA application cannot be processed until the parents signature is successfully added.
- Receiving Federal and State Financial Aid at a CCC, CSU, or UC
- Students who filled out the FAFSA but were admitted as non-residents usually do not see CA state financial aid in their original financial aid award–only federal financial aid. Once approval of their residency classification or AB 540 status is approved, students must contact the Financial Aid department to ensure that all state financial aid for which they are eligible is added to their financial aid award.
The CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) is an additional financial aid form required by a large number of private colleges and a few public institutions. The CSS Profile utilizes a separate, more comprehensive formula called Institutional Methodology (IM), compared to the one used for the FAFSA. IM aims at providing a more expansive look at the family’s financial situation compared to what the FAFSA offers. Colleges utilize this methodology to determine eligibility for institutional funds only (not federal or state).
The Profile is not free: There is a $9 registration fee and an additional $16 for each school requiring it. There are unlimited fee waivers! But these are not paper fee waivers, nor are they fee waivers in which counselors and advisors have a set amount to distribute. Rather, the student will find out whether or not they are eligible for the fee waivers after they have completed the CSS Profile, based upon income and other factors reported on the form. If students are eligible they are automatically provided the fee waivers at the time of submission.
Similar to the FAFSA, the CSS Profile goes live on October 1 of each year. Deadlines may vary based on the school and by the way you are applying: Regular Decision, Early Action, or Early Decision.
Important links and resources:
The FSA (Federal Student Aid ID) is a self-selected username and password that is an important first step of the federal financial aid process. The FSA ID serves as a legal signature in order to submit the FAFSA. Both the student and one parent (dependent students only) will need to create unique and separate FSA IDs. In a two-parent household, only one parent needs to create an FSA ID. It is recommended that the FSA IDs are created prior to completing the FAFSA.
If a student is not eligible to fill out the FAFSA and will instead be filling out the California Dream Act Application, the student will not be creating an FSA ID. Note that if a parent does not have a social security number they will not be able to create an FSA ID, but can still sign the FAFSA via a printed signature page if the student is eligible to complete the FAFSA.
When registering for the FSA ID there will be a series of questions about the student in terms of basic information like address, etc. Each user will need to select 4 security questions from the drop-down menu and enter answers for them. These security questions will be asked if the user forgets their username or password. In addition, you can use your phone number and/or email for text/email password recovery. A user can retrieve their username or reset their password, either by correctly answering the challenge questions or by having a secure code texted to the cell phone or sent to the email address if they completed the email and/or phone verification steps. If the user uses the challenge question option to reset the password, they will have to wait 30 minutes before they can use their new password.
The FSA ID can be edited and updated as needed and as personal information changes such as an email address. To make changes to the information, the user can go to fsaid.ed.gov and select the “Edit My FSA ID”. Passwords need to be changed every 18 months.
The FSA ID can be a tricky part of the process, especially if there are problems with users forgetting usernames and passwords. If the user gets stuck they can call the FSA ID help center at 1-800-433-3243.
Important links and resources:
- To create an FSA ID click this link: www.studentaid.gov and click on “create account”
- For more information about how to register for an FSA ID, students and families can view this video from Federal Student Aid here.
Paying for college can be challenging, but as a Californian student, you have several state-based financial aid programs available to help ease the burden. Remember that you will either need to submit the FAFSA or the California Dream Act application by March 2 in order to be considered for most types of financial aid. See our post, “Financial Aid 101”, to learn more about the process of applying for financial aid. Read on to find out more information about the Cal Grant, Middle Class Scholarship, Chafee Grant, and other financial aid opportunities in California.
Perhaps the most well-known financial aid program in California is the Cal Grant. The Cal Grant is a state-sponsored grant program available to eligible California students who attend participating colleges, universities, and technical schools in California. Some key facts about the Cal Grant program are:
- The Cal Grant is gift aid and you do not need to pay it back
- You need to meet certain financial, academic, and general requirements in order to be eligible for one of the Cal Grant awards
- There are several types of Cal Grant awards, based on factors like when you are applying for financial aid, what type of college or institution you attend, and your income level. The following provides brief descriptions of the types of Cal Grant awards:
- Cal Grant A or B High School Entitlement: For eligible current high school seniors and recent high school graduates
- Cal Grant A or B Transfer Entitlement: For eligible students who plan to transfer directly from a California Community College to a participating four-year college or university
- Competitive Cal Grant A or B: For eligible students who are not applying as a high school senior, within one year of high school graduation, or upon transfer from a California Community College to a four-year college or university
- Cal Grant C: For eligible students who are pursuing an occupational or technical program
- You do not need to figure out which Cal Grant you may qualify for on your own – you are automatically considered for the correct award based on the information you provide when applying.
- The award amounts for the Cal Grant program depend on which award you have received and the type of institution you attend
Your FAFSA or California Dream Act application serves as your application for the Cal Grant program. Once you have submitted the appropriate financial aid application, you will need to create a WebGrants 4 Students account to access the next steps and secure your Cal Grant, if awarded. For more information about Webgrants, see our post, “After the FAFSA/Dream Act: Next Steps”.
Keep in mind that students who are current or former foster youth, and students who have dependents, may be eligible for additional funds or increased Cal Grant eligibility.
Important Links and Resources:
- Read detailed information about the different types of Cal Grant awards and their eligibility requirements here
- Check out the various Cal Grant award amounts by institution type and award type here
- Check out the 2022-2023 Cal Grant Program Income Ceiling chart here
- Create your Webgrants 4 Students account here
- Learn more about the Cal Grant B Foster Youth Award here
- Learn more about Cal Grant awards for students with dependents here
Middle Class Scholarship
If you are not eligible for the Cal Grant program but still meet certain financial and general requirements, you may be eligible for something called the Middle Class Scholarship (MCS). Unlike the Cal Grant, the Middle Class Scholarship is only available to eligible students at public, four-year universities in California. Some key facts about the MCS are:
- In order to be eligible, your family may have an annual income of up to $184,000 and hold up to $184,000 in assets
- The Middle Class Scholarship is gift aid and does not need to be repaid
- Award amounts for the MCS are sliding scale and may vary by student and institution. This means that you may receive a MCS at one college you have been accepted to but not another
- Students who are eligible can receive an award amount between 10% and 40% of the mandatory system-wide tuition and fees at a University of California or California State University campus
- At a CSU, awards can range between $574 – $2,298
- At a UC, awards can range between $1,257 – $5,028
Like the Cal Grant, your FAFSA or California Dream Act Application serves as your application for the Middle Class Scholarship. Once you have submitted the appropriate financial aid application, you will need to create a WebGrants 4 Students account to manage your award. You will be notified if you have been awarded a Middle Class Scholarship by August.
Important Links and Resources:
- Read the top 10 things to know about the Middle Class Scholarship here
In addition to the Cal Grant or Middle Class Scholarship, current or former foster youth who meet certain criteria may also be eligible for another financial aid program in California called the Chafee Grant. If you have been in foster care for at least one day between the ages of 16 and 18, as a dependent or ward of the court, you qualify for this award. If eligible, you can receive up to $5,000 per year (that does not need to be repaid) for five years as long as you attend a qualifying institution in or outside of California.
You will first need to submit a FAFSA or California Dream Act application to be considered for the Chafee grant. If a first-time applicant, you will also need to complete an additional form called the California Chafee Grant application, which you can access through their Webgrants 4 Students account. If the California Department of Social Services is unable to verify your foster status, you will need to complete an additional form to certify your eligibility.
Important Links and Resources:
- Find detailed information about eligibility, the application process, and more for the Chafee Grant here
- To learn about your rights as a California foster youth as well as resources available to you, visit the California Office of the Foster Care Ombudsperson here
California College Promise Grant
For California residents who attend a California Community College and meet certain financial and general eligibility requirements, there is another financial aid program available called the California College Promise Grant (CCPG). This grant waives all enrollment fees for eligible students and does not need to be repaid. It is important to keep in mind that the CCPG waives the $46/unit enrollment fee for any number of units you enroll in, but does not cover additional student fees or books and supplies – you will need to cover these costs through the use of other financial aid or out of pocket.
There are several ways to qualify for the California College Promise Grant, for instance by meeting the income requirements, providing proof of receiving certain federal or state benefits or showing a certain level of financial need. The easiest way for you to determine your eligibility is by completing the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application, and submitting the California College Promise Grant Application for the specific community college you attend. The financial aid office will follow up to confirm eligibility and potentially request additional documents as proof.
Important Links and Resources:
- For a complete list of links to the California Community Colleges that offer online CCPG applications via CCCApply, click here
- To learn more about the financial aid and opportunities available at the California Community Colleges, check out the website icanaffordcollege.com