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How can I pay for school? Complete FAFSA. What FAFSA is, who's eligible and when to do it.

You want to go to college, but how do you pay for it?

This is where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) comes in. Each year, students can complete this form to get government money to help pay for school. States and colleges also use FAFSA information to award their own grants, scholarships, and loans. However, money is limited and awarded on a first-come-first-served basis, so it’s important to get a move on it and meet all your deadlines.

The form, the deadlines and calculations of what you might be eligible for can be complicated, but the Department of Education is working on simplifying the process. In the meantime, you can use this guide as a starting point.

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Who can apply for FAFSA?

Generally, anyone who has a financial need, is a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and is enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program at your college or career school.  You should also have a Social Security number and be able to maintain a minimum standard in your studies.

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What types of aid are available through FAFSA?

  • Federal Pell Grant, which offers free money for college depending on your financial need, costs to attend school, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less. These are generally reserved for undergraduate students but in some cases for those obtaining a post-baccalaureate teacher certification.

  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which is administered by schools. Not all schools participate so check with your school’s financial aid office. Undergraduates can receive between $100 and $4,000 a year, depending on your financial need, when you apply, the amount of other aid you get, and the availability of funds at your school.

  • Federal work-study programs provide part-time jobs for part-time or full-time undergraduate and graduate students with financial need to earn money to help pay education expenses. Jobs might be related to your area of study or be community work, either on or off campus. It’s administered by each school so check with the school’s financial aid office. You’ll earn at least the federal minimum wage but can earn more depending on the job, but how many hours you work will be determined by your school or employer with your school load in mind.

  • Federal direct subsidized loans for at least half-time undergraduates with financial need allows you to skip interest payments while you’re in school or in a grace (the first six months after you leave school) deferment (postponement of loan payments) period. Your school will determine the amount of funds you receive, and you must complete entrance counseling, a tool to ensure you understand your obligation to repay the loan. You will also need to sign a Master Promissory Note, agreeing to the terms of the loan.

  • Federal direct unsubsidized loans for undergraduates and graduate students aren’t needs based, but you’re responsible for paying the interest for all periods. Schools determine the amount you receive.

  • Federal direct PLUS loans (also called parent PLUS loans if parents take out these loans, or grad plus loans for graduate or professional students) help pay for education expenses not covered by other financial aid. You apply through your school and must have good credit. Interest rates on these loans are generally higher than for direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants of up to $4,000 a year for eligible programs. You’re required to complete a teaching service obligation as a condition for receiving the grant. If you don't complete the service obligation, the TEACH Grant will be converted to a loan that you must repay, with interest.

  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants if your parent or guardian died as a result of military service in either of those countries and you were under 24 years old at the time or enrolled in higher education. The maximum grant is equal to the amount of a maximum Federal Pell Grant for the award year but cannot exceed your cost of attendance for that award year

  • State grants differ depending on the state and often have different deadlines. Check with your state.

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To get financial assistance for college, learn about FAFSA and its deadlines.
To get financial assistance for college, learn about FAFSA and its deadlines.

When are the deadlines?

Once you’re familiar with the types of student aid available, it’s important to know your deadlines.

  • Federal deadlines: FAFSA is available each year on October 1 for the upcoming academic year for 21 months.

For the 2023-24 academic year, FAFSA opened October 1 last year and closes June 30, 2024.

Academic year 2024-25, will be an exception. The Department of Education is making changes so the application’s opening will be delayed to December.

  • State deadlines: Each state has its own deadline that’s usually earlier than the federal deadline. Check the FAFSA site for a list of them.

  • College deadlines: Each college may have its own deadline, also earlier than the federal deadline. Check with the college(s) you’re interested in attending and make sure you understand if the deadline is when your FAFSA form is processed or when the college receives your processed FAFSA form. The two are different.

Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at mjlee@usatoday.com and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What's FAFSA? Why you need to know if you plan to go to college.