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FAFSA & CSS Profile - A Straightforward Guide to Understanding Financial Aid

Financial aid is available through several different sources. Understanding each one is paramount in minimizing the cost of college. According to the College Board’s “Trends in Student Aid 2016,” close to 100 billion dollars were provided in federal, state, and institutional (college) grants in 2015-2016. Wondering how to get your hands on some of this free money? You need to apply for the two main forms of financial aid: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.  


  blue@2x   Blog Highlights:

    • Who should fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profiles?
    • What type of "Aid" does FAFSA help me qualify for?
    • Cost of the CSS Profile
    • How the financial aid process works
    • Financial aid deadlines for Regular Decision



FAFSA: An Overview


Part I: What is FAFSA?

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is used to determine the eligibility for aid (money and loans) that a person is qualified to receive from the government to help pay for college. There are a few important words in the title. First, it is FREE to fill out, and there is no reason to pay someone else to fill out your personal information on this six-page document. Second, this application is how the federal government determines whether someone is eligible for any type of aid, both grants and loans, from the government.  In addition, some colleges use the FAFSA to award their own aid.


Part II: What Type of "Aid" Does FAFSA Help Me Qualify For? 

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Part III: 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 student loans, which are available to students with and without financial need.



CSS Profile: An Overview


Part I: What is the CSS Profile? 

The CSS Profile is used to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional aid and is used by approximately 200 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 from each school. 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.

Troy Onink cautions families that “non-qualified annuities DO get counted on the CSS Profile, but not the FAFSA. Heed this warning before you decide to put all your liquid assets in annuity products to ‘hide them’ for aid purposes.”


Part II:  Who Should Fill out the CSS Profile?

If you are applying to one of these 200 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 watch this detailed video tutorial provided by the College Board.


Part III: How Much Does the CSS Profile Cost? 

While the FAFSA is free, the CSS Profile does cost 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.

However, 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.” For the current high school senior class of 2018, the College Board provides up to 8 fee waivers to those who qualify.



What do I do?


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

  • Prior to filling out the FAFSA, take thirty minutes to watch Karen Cooper, Director of Financial Aid at Stanford University, work through the entire FAFSA form on Khan Academy.
  • Gather and organize the documents that you will need to make the process go smoothly. (See chart above)
  • 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, complete the CSS Profile, if applying to these schools.

  • Prior to filling out the CSS Profile, gather all of the documents needed in order to make the process run smoothly. (See chart above)
  • 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.
  • There is also a Special Circumstances section that enables families to explain any extenuating circumstances that may impact their financial situation.



Step 3:  About a week after filing the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, check with each college to see if you need to submit any paperwork.


Step 4:  Once you receive your Financial Aid Award Letters, compare offers and do not hesitate to contact colleges’ financial aid offices to clarify or to negotiate offers.



How the Financial Aid Process Works


Understanding Expected Family Contribution: Federal Method

After the FAFSA is completed, the government will determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), using the “Federal Method,” which is determined by your financial information.

Your EFC is NOT what you will have to pay for tuition! Rather, your EFC is a government formula that provides colleges with an indication of what you might be able to afford.

After filling out the FAFSA, it can take up to five days to receive your Student Aid Report (SAR).  On this report, you will find your EFC and your Data Release Number (DRN), which is required for any changes to your FAFSA, so keep a copy of the SAR for your records. If the information on your SAR is correct, your FAFSA is complete.


Understanding Expected Family Contribution: Institutional Method

Colleges that use the CSS Profile in addition to FAFSA calculate a student’s EFC 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 such as the University of Michigan, UNC – Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia, use the IM (Institutional Method) to determine the student's eligibility for their own grant funds.” This calculator will give you an estimate of your EFC.


Understanding Financial Need

The Department of Federal Student Aid explains that financial need is “the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) at a school and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). While COA varies from school to school, your EFC does not change based on the school you attend.” The cost of attendance is a combination of tuition, room and board, books, travel, and personal expenses. Let’s look at three different college scenarios for a student whose EFC is $15,000.

Financial Need Chart 

Let’s understand these numbers a little better. Remember, in all three 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 with financial need using the school’s financial aid. Below shows each potential scenario.

Financial Aid Offered 

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 & 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 is offering, let’s look at what will be owed to each college.  

balance owed 

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

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While on a College Board webinar, Eric Johnson, Assistant Director for Policy Analysis and Communications at UNC Chapel Hill, stresses the importance of applying for financial aid:

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Upcoming Financial Aid Deadlines for Regular Decision


FAFSA & CSS Profile Deadlines

Since most colleges award their financial aid on a first come, first served basis, it is best to fill out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile as close to October as possible each year. However, if you have not yet done so, you should fill it out as soon as possible. Many colleges and universities have financial aid application deadlines throughout the months of January and February. Go directly to the schools’ websites to learn their financial aid deadlines. This chart provides close to 100 schools’ regular decision deadlines for both the FAFSA and CSS Profile.  

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

  • For some colleges, the financial aid deadline is January 15th, 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 & CSS Profile every year.
  • Check the deadlines each year; both FAFSA and CSS Profile are available on October 1st.
  • 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.


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