How the CSS Profile is different from the FAFSA

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Getting into college is nearly a full-time job: finding schools you like, completing applications and awaiting approval can take a lot of work. But there’s also the daunting task of applying for financial aid.

You have a few different ways to get financial aid, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile). Both of these help you pay for college, but they are different types of aid — the FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal aid, while the CSS Profile is a private survey that some schools use to determine institutional aid.

In some cases, you can apply and qualify for both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Here’s how they’re the same, how they’re different and what you need to know to be eligible for either.

CSS Profile vs. FAFSA

Both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA can help you pay for school, but there are some distinct differences in the application process and eligibility requirements.

FAFSA CSS Profile
Aid provided
Federal aid, including grants, scholarships and loans Grants, scholarships and loans provided by school
Fee Free $25 for one school, $16 per additional school
Required information
Personal information from student and parents; income and asset details Income and asset details; business income; bank statements; medical expenses
Eligibility U.S. citizens, some non-U.S. citizens (asylum seekers, permanent residents and refugees) U.S. and international students
Participating schools
Any postsecondary institution that offers federal financial aid Participating institutions only
Application renewal
Annually Annually

What you need to know about the FAFSA

The FAFSA is your ticket to receiving federal financial aid. In some cases, state and local aid require FAFSA completion as well.

The FAFSA is administered by the Department of Education, which is in charge of disbursing federal aid in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study and loans.

Funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with roughly $150 billion of federal aid available every year. While most potential students do complete the FAFSA form, one in four families don’t complete the application because they believe they won’t qualify or don’t know what it is, according to research from Sallie Mae.

You can complete your FAFSA form for the following school year on Oct. 1. So if you’re preparing for the 2021-22 school year, you can apply starting on Oct. 1, 2020. The deadline is June 30 of the upcoming school year, although you may have to submit the form earlier depending on your state of residence and the college you’re considering.

How much you receive depends on your expected family contribution and when you apply. The sooner you apply, the more likely you are to max out your free aid through grants and scholarships.

To continue getting federal aid (and, in some cases, state and local assistance), you’ll need to renew your FAFSA every year by reapplying. Every postsecondary institution that offers (and accepts) federal aid is a FAFSA participant.

What you need to know about the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is a private, independent survey administered by the College Board. This group is also in charge of the SAT and other standardized tests.

While most every college and university accepts the FAFSA, only a few hundred schools accept the CSS Profile. Many small, private colleges use the CSS Profile to determine institutional aid for prospective students. You may complete both forms, but you should first check if your potential school accepts the CSS Profile.

Deadlines for completion vary by school, and each school can tailor its CSS Profile survey to add specific questions that determine how much aid to dole out. How much you receive in aid depends on your eligibility and where you go to school.

While the FAFSA is based on expected family contribution, the CSS Profile takes into consideration many different types of income, assets and financial obligations. For instance, if you are currently repaying medical debt from a hospital stay, that could impact how much you can contribute to your child’s education.

If you haven’t been accepted yet or haven’t made a decision on where you want to attend school, remember that there is a fee for CSS Profile: $25 for the first school and $16 for each additional school. You might qualify for a fee waiver if you satisfy one of the following requirements:

  • You received an SAT fee waiver.
  • Your parental income is less than $45,000 annually for a family of four.
  • You’re under 24 years of age and a ward of the court.

While students need to complete only one FAFSA every year regardless of living situation, students with divorced or separated parents might have to ask each parent to fill out their own CSS Profile.

The bottom line

While most every college student should complete the FAFSA, there are some students who might qualify for more aid through the CSS Profile. Both of these applications can help you maximize your financial aid not only at the federal level, but also at the institutional level. Completing the FAFSA might also be necessary to qualify for state and local financial aid.

If your school doesn’t participate in the CSS Profile, you can still contact your school’s financial aid office to see if it offers any institutional grants, scholarships or loans you may qualify for.

Featured image by Monkey Business Images of Shutterstock.

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