What Is FAFSA?

What is FAFSA?

It’s time to start filling out paperwork for your student’s college funding. You’ve probably heard of the FAFSA, and you may have heard of the CSS Profile as well. But do you actually know what those forms do – and how they’re different?

Understanding the FAFSA and CSS Profile is vital to securing the best college aid. Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding the FAFSA

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form allows your student to apply for federal sources of aid, such as student loans, Pell Grants, and work-study.

Sometimes the state and/or the chosen college will use the FAFSA to determine the financial aid they will provide as well. In a sense, the FAFSA is as close as you can get to a one-stop-shop for financial aid.

The FAFSA asks for a variety of information, including:

  • Student income and assets
  • Parent’s income and assets
  • Parental marital status
  • Tax information

It can take some time to gather all the information you need to fill out the FAFSA accurately, but it’s vital to do so. In addition, because the government and most schools award aid on a first-come-first-serve basis, it’s important to turn in the FAFSA as early as possible, instead of waiting until FAFSA deadlines. The opening date to start filling out FAFA, is Oct 1st of the year before the college term starts.

Other Financial Aid Forms

Some schools use an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile. This gives more information, and means that some questions and answers that are excluded from consideration on FAFSA may be added back in for specific school-based aid.

The biggest differences for the CSS Profile include:

  • The net worth of the family home is counted, up to 2—3 times income
  • No simplified needs test
  • Net worth of small family businesses are counted
  • Uses three years of income instead of one
  • Students are expected to contribute to college costs
  • Paper losses that reduce FAFSA income are ignored
  • Non-custodial assets and assets owned by siblings under 19 and not yet in college are counted
  • The number of kids in college gives you a lower deduction
  • Allowances for college savings and emergency reserves are subtracted from assets
  • Student assets are assessed at 25% instead of 20%
  • Regional cost of living differences are considered

For most families, the CSS Profile gives a less favorable result than the FAFSA alone. You may consider this as your student looks at schools—it may be best to focus only on schools that use the FAFSA.

Net Price Calculators Can Help

If you want to cut through the confusion and be able to compare schools apples-to-apples, the net price calculator can make a big difference. Every school that participates in federal aid must have one, although the depth (and therefore usefulness) and accuracy of the calculators vary.

Many schools’ net price calculators are quite comprehensive and give you a really good understanding of how your family’s overall picture will impact the aid you receive. You may be surprised to discover that a private school is actually more affordable than a nearby state school.

Paying for college can seem daunting, but filling out the FAFSA can go a long way toward getting the funding your child needs. You’ll be able to find out if your student and your family qualify for loans, work-study, grants, and more.

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