Want to qualify for free college? Start with FAFSA, which comes out in December

Students walk on a campus mall
Students walk along the mall on the University of Minnesota campus.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Amid all the holiday cheer, let’s not forget it’s also the season to apply for financial aid for any higher education. So much fun! 

Whether you or your loved ones are already in college or trade school or applying in hopes of starting next fall, there are a few big differences for the 2024-2025 school year. 

Due to the 2020 FAFSA Simplification Act, there are several changes to the application and eligibility for federal aid rolling out this December. Also, the Minnesota Legislature this year passed historic investments in higher education, creating two major programs to help cover tuition and fees next fall for students who are Native American or come from lower-income families. 

If you want to go to a trade school, community college or university for free or at a deeply discounted price, you must start with FAFSA. 

We break it down for you. Here’s what you need to know.

First of all, what is the FAFSA? 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid – or FAFSA – is used to determine how much a student and their family is expected to contribute to the student’s education, according to the Office of Higher Education’s website

It is the only way to apply for federal student aid. It’s also how you qualify for Minnesota state grants and financial aid at all public and many private colleges and universities. Financial aid may look like scholarships or grants (aka free money), loans or Federal Work-Study, which funds part-time jobs for students with financial need. 

Factors like family size and year in school are considered, according to the federal student aid website. Tuition assistance can be applied towards undergraduate, graduate or vocational studies. 

You can complete the FAFSA online at or with a paper application.

Who applies for FAFSA? 

“Every student and family who are planning to go to college next year or do post-secondary education should complete the FAFSA, whether they think they’ll qualify for aid or not,” said Wendy Robinson, assistant commissioner for programs, policies and grants at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. 

There is no income cut-off to qualify for financial aid. Nor is there an age limit.  

Federal aid is limited to citizens and eligible noncitizens, which includes refugees and permanent residents. Undocumented immigrants looking to go to college in Minnesota should not fill out the FAFSA and instead should complete a MN Dream Act application to access state financial aid.  

What’s different about the FAFSA for the 2024-25 year? 

The simplified FAFSA is different in several ways. The big things to know: 

It should be faster to complete. The FAFSA is notoriously confusing and long, which is why the U.S. Congress passed a law to simplify it. The new application is streamlined with fewer questions. The FAFSA now will have a minimum of 18 questions, down from 103 possible questions on the previous version. It also allows for direct data sharing with the IRS to pull previous-year taxes, saving time on data entry. 

It expands eligibility for Pell grants. Per Department of Education estimates, just over 12,000 Minnesota residents will be newly eligible to receive free money from the federal government for higher education thanks to these updates. Over 29,000 Minnesota students will see an increase in the size of their Pell grant. 

It aims to reduce barriers to postsecondary learning for marginalized student populations. Among the changes: the FAFSA used to be available only in English and Spanish but now is expected to be available in the 11 most common languages spoken by English learner students and their parents. Also, applicants who cannot provide parent information — like foster, homeless and unaccompanied youth — can be granted provisionally independent status to complete the form. 

It restores Pell grant eligibility to all incarcerated people. In 1994, federal law banned people incarcerated in state and federal prisons from receiving Pell grants. The Obama-Biden administration piloted an initiative in 2015 to restore federal Pell grant access for incarcerated people studying at participating postsecondary programs, which eventually included several Minnesota colleges and universities.

The 2020 FAFSA Simplification Act expands eligibility to include all qualified incarcerated people. Robinson said the Minnesota Department of Corrections is working closely with the Office of Higher Education to overcome challenges with how incarcerated students can complete the FAFSA. 

The application is coming out later than usual. The FAFSA has typically become available in October, but this year it was not available as of Dec. 1.

When is the FAFSA coming out? 

Applications are expected to open by Dec. 31. The specific date was not yet known. 

This FAFSA cycle is for financial aid for July 1, 2024 to June 30, 2025.

When should I apply for FAFSA? 

Sooner rather than later. To get the maximum aid possible, aim to complete FAFSA before the priority deadline for schools you’re applying to. For example, the University of Minnesota lists a priority deadline of March 1 for incoming freshmen. That will ensure you get the best chance to obtain any limited scholarships offered by the college or university. 

“There is generally no advantage to applying by a certain time or day, as long as they are in by the priority deadline,” explained Robinson. “That said, students should not wait until the last minute, because they’ll want to make sure they have time to submit everything and get help if they have any questions.” 

Even if you end up missing the priority deadline, there is still reason to submit your FAFSA. 

State and federal grants are based on financial need, not “first come first served,” so a FAFSA just needs to be completed before the end of that school year. For the 2024-2025 school year, the deadlines to apply for the Minnesota state and federal Pell grants are June 30, 2025. You can apply for Federal Direct Loans any time. 

If you know which school you hope to attend, seek information from them directly about possible deadlines.

Does it cost money to submit a FAFSA? 

No. The FAFSA is free.

Do I have to know where I want to go to school before I submit my FAFSA?  

You don’t have to have applied for colleges yet to apply for the FAFSA! However, you do have to list at least one college or trade school to receive your information. To qualify for state grant aid, you must list an eligible in-state college.

How can I prepare ahead of the FAFSA before it’s available? 

Ahead of Dec. 31, you can prepare by setting up an online account on, determining whether a parent or spouse needs to contribute information on a form and gathering needed documents such as your social security number and tax documents, if entering financial information manually. You can watch these instructional videos from the Federal Student Aid office on YouTube to help prepare. 

Robinson said the federal financial aid website, StudentAid.Gov, will have the most up-to-date and accurate information about the simplified FAFSA. There are also resources through high schools, colleges and universities people are considering, and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.  

Fair warning: completing the FAFSA might not be a smooth process yet. Robinson encourages people to be patient if they run into glitches or questions.  

“This is a new year, and so everybody involved in the process is learning and has questions about it as well,” she said.

What are the new tuition assistance programs for Minnesotans?

The Minnesota Legislature this year established two programs that create tuition- and fee-free pathways for certain students in Minnesota: the North Star Promise Scholarship Program and the American Indian Scholar Program. 

The North Star Promise Scholarship Program is for Minnesota residents whose family adjusted gross income is below $80,000 who are attending a Minnesota public higher education institution or Tribal College.

People are eligible as long they have not already earned a bachelor’s degree. North Star does not have an age restriction. Starting Fall 2024, the “last-dollar” program will cover tuition and fees after other scholarships, grants, stipends and tuition waivers have been applied. 

The program is expected to have such a big impact that it could affect whether students stay in Minnesota or go to college in nearby states. To compete, North Dakota State University recently announced it will also offer free undergraduate tuition for up to two years for Minnesotans whose families make less than $80,000 per year.  

The American Indian Scholars Program is for Minnesota residents who are enrolled members or citizens of a federally recognized American Indian Tribe or Canadian First Nation or who are enrolled members or citizens of Minnesota Tribal Nations, regardless of residency. It provides full tuition and fee waivers for students pursuing an undergraduate education at Minnesota’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities. 

But these are just a few of many different scholarships and grants intended to support Minnesotans, with more out in the universe for people of other backgrounds.  

“I would say just apply for the FAFSA and that way you can be considered for everything,” said Keith Hovis, communications director at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

How do I receive tuition assistance through the North Star Promise Program?

Complete the FAFSA or, if you are undocumented, the MN Dream Act Application. Nothing else is needed to apply.

How do I qualify for the American Indian Scholars Program?

For tuition assistance at a University of Minnesota campus, eligible students can apply through the Office of Student Finance.

The Minnesota State system, comprised of 26 colleges and 7 universities, is finalizing its application, awarding, and notification processes for the American Indian Scholars Program this week. Schools are expected to contact current students that may be eligible to begin the awarding process.

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