For many students, being able to pay for college depends on access to financial aid. There are several ways to get financial aid for college, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile). Filling out the FAFSA is the only way to qualify for federal student aid- including federal scholarships, grants, work-study programs and loans. Filling out the CSS Profile gives you access to private student aid from many universities and scholarship programs.

In many cases, it is a good idea to apply for both the FAFSA and the CSS profile to get an idea of how much federal and private aid you are eligible for.

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.

Aid provided
Federal and state 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; business income Income and asset details; business income; bank statements; records of untaxed income and benefits; medical expenses
Eligibility U.S. citizens, some non-U.S. citizens (asylum seekers, permanent residents and refugees) U.S. citizens and international students
Participating schools
Any postsecondary institution that offers federal financial aid Participating institutions only
Application renewal
Annually Annually

What is the FAFSA?

Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the FAFSA is your ticket to receiving federal financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study and loans. In some cases, state and local aid require FAFSA completion as well.

Funds are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with about $150 billion of federal aid available every year.

You’re eligible for aid through the FAFSA if you:

  • Are a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen (like a permanent resident).
  • Have a Social Security number or Alien Registration Number.
  • Have a high school diploma, GED or equivalent.
  • Plan to enroll or are enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program at a qualifying institution.

If you are experiencing homelessness, have been in foster care or have intellectual disabilities, you may qualify for additional aid.

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. How much you receive depends on your expected family contribution (EFC) and when you apply.

What is the CSS Profile?

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

While most colleges and universities accept the FAFSA, only about 200 programs accept the CSS Profile. Several small, private colleges use the CSS Profile to determine institutional aid for prospective and continuing students. You may complete both forms, but you should first check if your potential school accepts the CSS Profile.

Each school can tailor its CSS Profile form 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. Your eligibility depends on the specific institution you’re applying to, though unlike with the FAFSA, international students may be eligible.

While the FAFSA primarily uses your expected family contribution to determine aid eligibility, 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.

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 family adjusted gross income is under $100,000.
  • You’re under 24 years of age and a ward of the court or an orphan.

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.

FAFSA and CSS Profile deadlines

Both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA open on Oct. 1 for the following school year. For the 2023-24 school year, applications opened on Oct. 1, 2022. The deadline for the FAFSA is June 30 of the school year for which you’re applying, although you may have to submit the form earlier depending on your state of residence and the college you’re considering. The CSS Profile deadline varies based on the school you’re submitting to. Some states have deadlines as early as December, and more than a dozen states award grants on a first-come, first-served basis.

The sooner you apply, the more likely you are to max out your free aid through grants and scholarships. Both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile include funding that is first come, first served, so the sooner you complete your form, the more likely you are to get aid.

Should I apply to the FAFSA or CSS Profile?

As a general rule, you should always apply for as much financial aid as you can. At a minimum, you should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. Your expected family contribution and when you complete your application will determine how much you get. This should always be your first step.

The CSS Profile offers different aid than the FAFSA, which means that you might unlock even more financial aid than what’s available at the federal and state level. If you can afford to pay the fee or you qualify for fee waivers, the CSS Profile is a great extra step. But not every school requires the CSS Profile, so you’ll want to investigate any institution you’re interested in before filling out an application.