Financial Aid Forms: FAFSA and CSS Profile Overview

Flickr user the Bent Tree

Flickr user the Bent Tree

So, in the alphabet soup of college financial aid, you (hopefully) learned that the grand-daddy of financial aid acronyms is the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Every school uses the FAFSA in determining and awarding financial assistance for college.  Through the personal and financial information provided on the FAFSA, the federal government determines what they think you are able to pay toward college costs.  The amount the government thinks you can pay is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and is subtracted from the school’s cost of attendance to determine your financial need.  (Cost of Attendance – Expected Family Contribution = Need) It is then the college’s job to meet all or as much of that need as possible, and viola, a financial aid package is born.

For some colleges, however, the FAFSA’s voyeuristic view of your family finances isn’t enough information.  Hard to believe, huh?  So, for those compulsive collectors of financial info, CSS (College Scholarship Service) created The CSS Profile. The Profile financial aid application is used almost exclusively by private colleges who give out millions of dollars of their own grant funds (i.e. “gift” that does not need to be repaid).  The Profile asks almost every conceivable financial question, closing every possible loophole and leaving no stone unturned about the places from which a family might have income or assets.

These college financial aid applications are, however, necessary evils, so I recommend that you grab a tub of your favorite ice cream, get into a comfy chair with some soothing music to calm your nerves, and get the job done.  While the FAFSA will not cost you anything to file (hence the “Free” in Free Application for Federal Student Aid), no such luck with The CSS Profile.  Filing The CSS Profile will cost $25, and every school to which you want the data released will cost you an additional $16. So, while you should list every college to which you want to be considered for financial aid on the FAFSA, you should list ONLY the schools that require The CSS Profile on that application form.

Occasionally you’ll find a college that requires both the FAFSA and their own institutional financial aid application, but not the CSS Profile.  In their attempt to avoid having you pay to file the CSS Profile, they’ve added another application form into the mix. Some colleges might ask you for a copy of your tax returns and W-2’s before they’ll prepare a financial aid package for you, some will only want these documents only if you choose to enroll, and some schools won’t want them at all.

How do you stay sane and find all of this information?  You now become part consumer and part detective.  Each school’s financial aid filing requirements are listed on the school’s website, usually at a link from the school’s admissions site. It can get a little frustrating, but stick with it to earn a huge payoff in the form of helpful financial aid!

And of course, College Raptor can make the hunt for aid a little bit easier! With our free tools, you can see what financial aid you might receive from a certain college!


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