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7 min read

FAFSA & CSS Profile: Guide to Understanding Financial Aid

FAFSA & CSS Profile: Guide to Understanding Financial Aid

Financial aid for college is available through several different sources. Understanding each source is paramount in minimizing the cost of college.

According to the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid, $234.6 billion was provided in federal, state, and institutional grants in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Wondering how to get your hands on some of this money? You need to apply for the two main forms of financial aid: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.  

  blue@2x   What You'll Learn:



FAFSA: An Overview

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is used to determine the eligibility for aid that a person is qualified to receive from the government to help pay for college. 

There are a few important words in the title.

1. It is free to fill out. There is no reason to pay someone else to fill out your personal information on this document.

2. This application is how the federal government determines whether someone is eligible for any type of aid, grants and loans alike.

3. Some colleges use the FAFSA to award their institutional aid. 


What type of aid does FAFSA help me qualify for? 

Completing the FAFSA qualifies you for several different types of aid. We've put together a helpful chart to help you understand the types of aid, along with examples. 

Type of Aid Explanation of Aid Examples
Federal Grants Money that the federal government gives a student, which does not need to be paid back
  • Federal Pell Grant
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH)
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant
State Grants Money that the state government gives a student, which does not need to be paid back

(36 states use FAFSA to determine state grants. If your state is not on that list, check your state's financial aid administrator website to learn how to apply for state aid)
Low-Interest Federal Loans Loans that are backed by the government and must be paid back over time
  • Direct Subsidized Loan (Stafford Loan)
  • Federal Perkins Loan
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan (Stafford Unsubsidized)
  • Direct PLUS Loan
Work-Study An aid program that enables students to work part-time to help pay for college expenses
  • Federal Work-Study
State Loans Available in some states
  • Vary by state
College/Institutional Loans Loans offered directly through the college. Interest rates can vary
  • Vary by college 
  • May not be offered by all colleges
College/Institutional Grants and Scholarships Grants and scholarships offered directly through the college that do not need to be paid back
  • Vary by college
  • May be used by colleges that do not use the CSS Profile

This blog post on Inside the Financial Aid Process explains more details on these terms and the types of aid that are available to you.

Who should fill out the FAFSA? 

Everyone should fill out the FAFSA, whether you need help paying the majority of your college tuition or you need to secure low-interest loans. Even if you think you might not qualify for grants based on your financial situation, you should still fill out the FAFSA to qualify for low-interest federally-backed students loans, which are available to students with and without financial need.


CSS Profile: An Overview

What is the CSS Profile? 

The CSS Profile is used to determine a student's eligibility for institutional aid and is used by approximately 400 schools. While these schools also use the FAFSA to provide aid from the government, the CSS Profile is used by these specific colleges to give out grants, scholarships, and loans directly. The CSS Profile is administered by the College Board, which states: "each year CSS Profile unlocks access to grant aid in excess of $9 billion for thousands of students."

In addition, the CSS Profile more closely examines a family's financial situation in order to award aid to students with the most financial need. The chart below explains the assets, savings, and other financial information that FAFSA and the CSS Profile consider. 

FAFSA vs CSS Profile Chart

* Not every college that uses the CSS Profile takes all of these additional factors into consideration.


Who should fill out the CSS Profile?

If you are applying to one of these 400 schools, you need to fill out both the FAFSA (for federal and state aid) and the CSS Profile (for institutional aid). Prior to filling out the CSS Profile, it might be helpful to read this article that explains answers to common questions about the CSS Profile.


How much does the CSS Profile cost? 

While the FAFSA is free, the CSS Profile costs money: $25.00 for the first college and $16.00 for each additional. Therefore, if you are applying to 8 colleges that require the CSS Profile, it will cost $137.00.

That said, on December 14, 2017, The College Board announced that "starting in fall 2018, CSS Profile will also allow an unlimited number of CSS Profile applications for first-time, domestic college applicants who take the SAT with a fee waiver or meet income-eligibility criteria." 


Understanding the Financial Aid Application Steps

Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA and write down all login information 

  • Prior to filling out the FAFSA, take 30 minutes to watch Karen Cooper, Director of Financial Aid at Stanford University, work through the entire FAFSA on Khan Academy 
  • Gather and organize the documents that you will need to make the process go smoothly 
  • Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax information into your FAFSA form. According to the Federal Student Aid website, "The IRS DRT remains the fastest, most accurate way to input your tax return information into the FAFSA form"


Step 2: After filling out the FAFSA, consider completing the CSS Profile

  • If you are applying to these CSS Profile schools, you should complete the CSS Profile. Prior to filling out the CSS Profile, gather all of the documents needed in order to make the process run smoothly
  • Since the CSS Profile gives each school an opportunity to ask additional questions, be prepared to provide information on other financial items, such as vehicles owned or amount owed on vehicles, second mortgages, and home equity loans
  • Keep in mind: there is also a Special Circumstances section that gives families space to explain any extenuating circumstances that may impact their financial situation

Step 3: One week after filing the FAFSA and the CSS Profile

Double-check with each college where you're planning to or have applied to see if you need to submit any additional paperwork.


Step 4: Once you receive your Financial Aid Award Letters...


How the Financial Aid Process Works

Understanding Expected Family Contribution: Federal Method

After the FAFSA is completed, the government will determine your Student Aid Index, (previously the Expected Family Contribution, which will be replaced in December 2023) using the Federal Method, which is determined by your financial information. Your SAI is not what you will have to pay for tuition! Rather, your SAI is a government formula that provides colleges with an indication of what you might be able to afford. 

Within 5 days of filling out the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). On this report, you'll find your SAI and your Data Release Number (DRN), which is required for any changes to your FAFSA. If the information on your SAR is correct, your FAFSA is complete. Keep a copy of the SAR for your records.

Please note that the FAFSA is rolling out new changes for the 2024-2025 academic year


Understanding the Student Aid Index: Institutional Method

Colleges that use the CSS Profile in addition to FAFSA calculate a student's SAI by using the Institutional Method, which will likely arrive at a different number from the Federal Method because the CSS Profile takes into consideration more financial information. 

The College Board further clarifies that "the FM (Federal Method) is used to calculate the student's eligibility for federal aid, such as Pell Grants, and most types of state aid. It's used by most public universities. Many private colleges and scholarship programs, and some public universities use the IM (Institutional Method) to determine the student's eligibility for their own grant funds." Scoir students can work alongside their parents to use the provided calculator to determine an estimated SAI. 


Understanding Financial Need

Financial need is your cost of attendance (COA) at a school minus your Student Aid Index (SAI). While COA can vary from college to college, your SAI does not change based on the school.

The cost of attendance is a combination of tuition, room and board, books, travel, and personal expenses. Let's look at 3 different scenarios for a student whose SAI is $15,000. 

Financial Aid Offered 

Let's understand these numbers a little better. Remember, in all 3 situations, the financial need numbers are assuming that the student is paying $15,000 out of pocket. Now, each of these schools can decide how it might help meet a student's need using the school's financial aid. We explore each potential scenario below. 

Once a student’s financial need is determined, each college will present a Financial Aid Award Letter, which will show the grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans offered to help pay for college. Some colleges (such as colleges 1 and 2 above) will attempt to offset a good portion of need, other colleges (such as college 3 above) may attempt to offset some need, and others may not offer any assistance at all.  

After learning of the financial aid amount that each college offers, let’s look at what will be owed.  

balance owed

Let’s look at these numbers a bit differently. Since the SAI is a number that the colleges are assuming a student can pay, here are the total out of pocket expenses for a student, if they accept the total financial aid award, including loans, which have to be paid back, and work-study, which has to be earned.   

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 2.06.52 PM.png  

Upcoming Financial Aid Deadlines for Regular Decision

FAFSA and CSS Profile Deadlines

Since most colleges award their financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, it's best to fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile as close as possible to October 1 each year (this year, the FAFSA will be available in December).

Many colleges and universities have financial aid application deadlines throughout the months of January and February. Go directly to the schools' website to learn their financial aid deadlines. 


State-By-State Deadlines for FAFSA

The U.S. Department of Education's website has a list of student aid deadlines by state. While some say "as soon as possible after October 1st," most others have specific dates, which could be as early as mid-January. If your state is not listed on this FAFSA form, then you need to research your state's application policy and deadline by looking up your state's financial aid administrator website.


Final Reminders

  • Check the deadlines each year. Typically, both the FAFSA and CSS Profile are available on October 1st (this year is an exception, with the new FAFSA being released in December 2023)
  • For some colleges, the financial aid deadline is January 15, so complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile as soon as possible
  • Let the financial aid offices know if any financial changes occur, such as the loss of a job
  • File the FAFSA and CSS Profile every year
  • Keep in mind that many schools give out financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so apply as early as possible each year


This article was originally published on October 2, 2021. It was updated on July 25, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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