If you need help paying for college, there are 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 determine your eligibility for aid — but while the FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal aid, the CSS Profile is a private survey that some colleges use to determine institutional aid.
In some cases, you can apply 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.
||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|
||Personal information from student and parents; income and asset details; business income||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. citizens and international students|
||Any postsecondary institution that offers federal financial aid||Participating institutions only|
What you need to know about 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 roughly $125 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’re eligible for 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 in an eligible degree or certificate program at a qualifying institution.
If you are homeless, 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 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 colleges and universities accept the FAFSA, only about 200 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.
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. Your eligibility depends on the specific institution you’re applying to, though unlike with the FAFSA, international students are often eligible.
While the FAFSA is based on your 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.
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.
When should I submit the applications?
Both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA open on Oct. 1 for the following school year. So if you’re preparing for the 2022-23 school year, you can apply as early as Oct. 1, 2021. 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 stage 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 profile, the more likely you are to get aid.
Should I apply to the FAFSA, CSS Profile or both?
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 compared to FAFSA, which means 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.
If you’re looking to maximize your financial aid, start with the following steps:
- Research potential schools to see which require the CSS Profile.
- Gather relevant information, like your Social Security number, your parents’ Social Security numbers, records of your family income and information about your savings and checking accounts.
- Apply for the FAFSA (and the CSS Profile, if applicable) as soon as possible after Oct. 1.
- Receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) with details about your financial aid eligibility.
- Accept financial aid and send money to your school, if applicable.
- Renew FAFSA and CSS Profile information each year.