There are two main financial aid forms: the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and the CSS Profile, which stands for College Scholarship Service Profile. The two forms have similarities and differences. It’s important for families to know what each financial aid form is used for before filling and submitting them.
The FAFSA is used for federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants, Direct Student Loans, Parent Plus Loans, and work-study programs. This is the most common financial aid form used by most colleges.
The CSS Profile is an online application used by colleges and scholarship programs to award Institutional (their own) aid. This type of aid includes scholarships, grants, and loans all provided by the college or private scholarship organization.
What Is the CSS Profile?
The CSS Profile is an application for institutional aid required by about 300 colleges, universities and scholarship organizations. The schools that require the application are mostly private colleges or other institutions that have large endowments.
The College Board administers the CSS Profile, but each college decides which questions to ask and how to use the information to determine a student’s eligibility for aid. Schools use the CSS Profile because they feel the FAFSA does not do a good enough job collecting detailed information and assessing who should qualify for institutional grants.
Families must pay $25 per college to submit the CSS Profile ($16 for additional reports). Fee waivers are also granted, provided the family meets the waiver qualifications.
Some schools require International students to also submit the CSS Profile, if they are asking for financial aid.
[Need help filling out the CSS Profile? Check out our Guide to Filling Out the CSS Profile.]
What Is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA is an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form is used to apply for federal student loans and grants. For many students, it is the first step toward receiving financial assistance.
Students should complete the FAFSA each year, even if they do not intend to apply for financial aid.
- Be Prepared for These 10 Key FAFSA Changes for 2024-25
- 2024-25 FAFSA Guide: How to Handle the Changes and Get the Student Aid You Deserve
CSS Profile vs FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used to apply for federal financial aid such as grants, loans, work-study programs, etc. The CSS Profile is used to determine a student’s eligibility for some institutional aid including college grants, scholarships, and loans.
At some colleges, both applications are required to complete in order to receive aid. There are several similarities and differences between the two forms. Here are key points to consider:
Do FAFSA and the CSS Profile Need to Be Filled Out Each Year?
For most schools, the CSS Profile and FAFSA must be completed annually. However some schools may not require the CSS Profile to be filled out each year unless your financial circumstances have dramatically changed, so it’s worth asking the college what their policy is.
The FAFSA must be filled each year if students and/or parents are relying on borrowing federal loans (Direct Student Loans and/or Parent Plus Loans), if the student receives Pell Grants, work-study, or any need-based aid from a college that does not require the CSS Profile.
Where Are FAFSA and the CSS Profile Sent?
The CSS Profile is sent directly to the school(s) where your student is applying to (or already attends) while the FAFSA goes to the U.S Department of Education.
How Much Does Each Financial Aid Form Cost?
The FAFSA is free and takes about 10 minutes to complete. The fee for the initial application of the CSS Profile is $25 and additional reports are $16. It is free for domestic undergraduate students whose family income is under $100,000.
Which Assets Do You Need to Report on FAFSA vs CSS Profile?
Both the CSS Profile and FAFSA ask for financial information about family income and assets but the CSS Profile asks for a more detailed view of family finances. As a comparison, the CSS Profile asks for the following information, which the FAFSA does not:
- Retirement Assets – The CSS Profile asks for the value of all retirement assets (401k, IRA, Roth IRAs, pensions, etc.). The FAFSA does not.
- Business Net Worth – The CSS Profile asks for a parent’s business net worth, regardless of the size of the business. The FAFSA only asks for the business net worth for businesses that have over 100 employees.
- Home Equity – The CSS Profile asks for the value of the home equity in your primary home. Some schools treat the home equity value like other assets and assess the value at around 5% to use in calculating aid. Other schools may cap home equity value based on a multiple of the parent’s total income. Schools use home equity value differently in their aid calculations and this can cause schools from similar tiers to have very different costs. We encourage families to ask financial aid offices how home equity will be used in the school’s calculations so they have a better idea of what is impacting their final college cost.
- Non-Custodial and Step Parent Income and Assets – Some colleges require both biological parents—the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent—to complete separate applications for the CSS Profile. Check the College Board and the college’s financial aid website to learn which schools require this. If a non-custodial parent remarries, the income and assets of their new spouse also need to be included in the CSS Profile and will be factored into aid calculations by the college. Parents considering remarriage are advised to evaluate the potential impact to their child’s financial aid offers.
CSS Profile vs FAFSA: How Are They Different?
Should I Apply to the FAFSA or CSS Profile?
If a student needs to borrow money for college, they should fill out FAFSA, whether or not their college also requires the CSS Profile. The FAFSA is the only form that will give students and parents access to federal aid and loans. Student loans from the federal government do not require a co-signer, are solely in a student’s name, and usually provide the lowest interest rate available to students
If a student is applying to schools that require the CSS Profile, they will also need to fill out this form in addition to FAFSA.
FAFSA and CSS Profile Deadlines
The deadline to apply to the federal government for FAFSA is June 30 of the summer following the fall of your student’s academic year. For example, the deadline for the 2024-2025 FAFSA is June 30, 2025, although to there are many reasons to file close the opening data. Due to extensive changes, the 2024-25 FAFSA opening was delayed from the usual Oct. 1, 2023 until Dec. 31, 2023.
While June 20 is the government’s FAFSA deadline, colleges have their own deadlines to receive a student’s FAFSA and CSS Profile if the student would like to be considered for financial aid. Each school has a different deadline. It’s so important to check the website for each college and keep track of their financial aid deadlines. These deadlines may be different from application deadlines.
Don’t Wait Till the Last Minute
Financial aid policies and forms can be confusing. It’s best for parents to begin educating themselves on the CSS Profile vs FAFSA before their student’s senior year of college. Knowing which schools require the CSS Profile may impact whether or not a student will want to apply, depending on their family’s financial and marital situation.
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