What is Federal Student Aid?

Overview: Federal Student Aid

Federal student aid comes from the federal government – specifically, the U.S. Department of Education. It's money that helps a student pay for education expenses at a postsecondary school (e.g., college, vocational school, graduate school).

Federal student aid covers such expenses as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation. Aid also can help pay for a computer and for dependent care.

The four categories of federal student aid are:

  • Grant – Grant money usually doesn't have to be repaid. Most U.S. Department of Education grants are based on the student's financial need.
  • Scholarship – U.S. Department of Education scholarship money is awarded based on a student's academic achievement and does not have to be repaid.
  • Work Study – Work study money is earned by a student through a job on or near campus while attending school and does not have to be repaid.
  • Loan – Loan money must be repaid with interest.

For details about the federal student aid programs, including maximum annual amounts and loan interest rates, visit StudentAid.gov external-link icon.

Why Get a Federal Student Loan?

Federal student loans offer:

  • low fixed interest rates
  • income-based repayment plans
  • loan forgiveness
  • deferment options, including deferment of loan payments when a student returns to school

Generally, repayment of a federal loan does not begin until after the student leaves school. A student receiving a federal loan does not need a credit history or a cosigner. Private loans from banks often do not offer such benefits.

Who Gets Federal Student Aid?

The most basic eligibility requirements are that you must:

  • be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • have a valid Social Security number
  • be making satisfactory academic progress
  • be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student working toward a degree or certificate in an eligible program
  • show you are qualified to obtain a postsecondary education by:
    • having a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate
    • passing an approved ability-to-benefit test (if you don't have a diploma or GED certificate, a school can administer a test to determine whether you can benefit from the education offered at that school)
    • meeting other federally approved standards your state establishes
    • completing a high school education in a homeschool setting approved under state law

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)


Students must complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal student aid. The financial aid office will use information from the FAFSA to determine whether you are eligible to receive federal grants, loans, or work study funds. States and schools also use the information from the FAFSA to determine whether you qualify for additional aid.

Get a Federal Student Aid ID at https://studentaid.gov/fsa-id/sign-in/landing. Your FSA ID lets you "sign" your online FAFSA, access and make corrections to your application information.

Collect the documents needed to apply, including income tax returns and W-2 forms (and other records of income). If your tax returns are not completed at the time you apply, estimate the tax information, apply, and finalize the information later. Here are some items you might need:

  • Your Social Security number and your parents' Social Security numbers if you are providing parent information.
  • Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen.
  • Federal tax information or tax returns, including W-2 information, for yourself, for your spouse if you are married, and for your parents if you are providing parent information, using income records for the year prior to the academic year for which you are applying.
  • Information on savings, investments, and business assets for yourself (and for your parents if you are providing parent information).

Submit the FAFSA in time to meet school and state aid deadlines. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's priority deadline is February 1st of the school year. Apply online by going to https://studentaid.gov/.

Review your Student Aid Report (SAR) – the result of your FAFSA. You will receive your SAR by e-mail or by mail. If necessary, make changes or corrections and submit your SAR for reprocessing. Your complete, correct SAR will contain your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – the number used to determine your federal student aid eligibility. If you do not receive your SAR within three weeks of submitting your FAFSA, go to https://studentaid.gov/ and select "Check Status of a Submitted FAFSA," or you may call 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Your school might request additional information from you. Be sure to respond by any deadlines, or you might not receive federal student aid. Pay special attention to letters or e-mails from your school, and contact the financial aid office if you do not understand what the school is offering you.