The FAFSA and CSS Profile: What Are They?

We outline the differences, benefits, and potential pitfalls of both the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Learn the steps needed to apply for financial aid at colleges on your list.

There are two primary application forms that colleges use to determine students’ financial aid eligibility, as well as the types and amounts of aid that they can receive.

The first form is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or "FAFSA" for short. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The second form, the CSS Profile, or sometimes just "the Profile," stands for the College Scholarship Service Profile and is distributed by the College Board (the same company that administers the SAT).

What Is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is required for all federal financial aid programs, ranging from grants to loans to work study, but it is also used to determine eligibility for many state and institutional aid programs. The application is available on January 1st for the upcoming academic year, so if you’re beginning school in August or September, you would ideally complete the FAFSA in January of the same year.

It’s a good idea to fill it out as early as possible because many state and institutional programs award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. If you wait until mid-year to complete it, there may no longer be funds left in these programs. Also, nearly everyone is eligible for some type of aid, so it’s smart to complete the application even if you think you won’t get much. The type you are awarded may be in the form of loans, but you can always decline these if you decide you or your family can make up the difference.

There are over 100 questions on the FAFSA, relating to you and your family’s income, assets, and dependency status. Unless you’re legally independent from your parents, you’ll need to answer these questions using financial documents for all of you. You and your parents can also use something called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which automatically inputs most of your tax information from the IRS into the FAFSA. Since many people don’t complete their annual tax filings until closer to the April 15th deadline, you can estimate your tax information for the FAFSA before you’ve filed and elect to use the DRT when you’ve completed your taxes. If your parents are divorced, both households need to provide information.

FAFSA CSS Profile Financial Aid Image Source

Many people feel overwhelmed the first time they complete the FAFSA. There are a lot of questions, and some of them can seem confusing if you’re not familiar with tax or financial language. Your high school guidance office may be able to provide help completing the application. You can also turn to private financial advisors with experience in this area. While they charge a fee for this service, their knowledge is valuable for ensuring there are no errors on your application that could affect a potential award. There are also free services available in many communities, which an online search or your high school guidance counselor should be able to point you to.

The first time that you complete the FAFSA you can list up to 10 colleges that you’re applying to, and the information will be shared with each of them. Your entire list is also shared with the colleges, and there has been concern in recent years that the schools were interpreting their position on the list as an indicator of your interest. Some have suggested that colleges were using the information as a factor in their admissions decisions and non-need-based financial aid decisions. In order to keep your list neutral, alphabetize the schools you’re applying to on the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

Once you’re enrolled in a college and receive financial aid, remember that you must complete the FAFSA every year you’re counting on financial aid. There is a FAFSA renewal option, and any financial or dependency circumstances that have changed will need to be updated. These changes may affect your award, so try to submit them as early as possible and plan accordingly.

What Is the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is an application that approximately 400 private colleges use, along with the FAFSA, to make financial aid awards. It has even more questions than the FAFSA, but it also allows for more detail about your family’s financial circumstances. The College Board charges between $9 and $16 for each application it sends to a college, although there are no- or low-cost options for low-income students. Colleges that require the Profile use it to make non-federal financial aid awards from their institutional scholarship and loan programs. They combine this institutional aid with federal awards to create a total financial aid package for the student. Many private colleges have significant funds to offer to students, so even though it’s more work, it can be worthwhile also applying to schools that rely on the Profile. In fact, high-achieving, low-income students will often receive more aid at these private, non-profit colleges than they would at a state school, resulting in a lower overall cost of their education.

A Final Note

Sometimes families’ financial circumstances change for the worse between the time they complete these applications and the time a student chooses his or her college. If this happens, contact the financial aid offices at the schools you’ve applied to and ask how to submit an amended application.

Colleges understand that these situations arise, and they have steps you can follow to explain the new circumstances. Typically, you’ll need to write a letter and provide documentation of the changes, which the financial aid offices will review. If they decide that your circumstances warrant it, they will provide you with a new financial aid package.

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