The CSS Profile and FAFSA – Comparing Student Financial Aid Applications

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Nearly every student who applies to college or career school also applies for financial aid. With grants, loans, and scholarships available from federal, state, institutional, and private sources, students have good reason to explore their financial aid options. 
When you apply for financial aid, you’ll encounter two applications: the FAFSA and the CSS College Profile. Here’s what they are and how they differ from each other.

The CSS Profile and FAFSA

The CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE

The College Board, a not-for-profit membership association that assists students to enter college, is comprised of more than 5,400 career colleges, trade schools, universities, and other educational organizations. 
The College Board administers the SAT test to high school students. But another key mission of the College Board is to help you lower your cost of attendance (COA). Your COA includes tuition, room and board, books, travel expenses, and other expenses associated with attending college.
The College Board administers the online CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE application (commonly known as the CSS Profile). Member schools agree to use the CSS Profile application to standardize the financial aid application process and to make it easier for students. By using one standardized application, it’s much easier for students to apply to multiple schools.
Schools use your CSS Profile application information to determine how much nonfederal financial aid you are eligible to receive. Nonfederal financial aid includes institutional grants and scholarships, which are subsidies that the college gives you to help you lower your cost of attending college.
You fill out your CSS Profile online. There is an initial fee of $25 that includes sending your application to one school, plus a fee of $16 for every additional school or college that you want your information sent to.

Which Colleges Use the CSS Profile?

The information collected on the CSS Profile is used by almost 600 colleges, universities, graduate schools, and professional schools to determine eligibility for nonfederal student aid funds. Many private colleges, which have institutional financial aid funds, will ask students to complete both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile applications. 
Many career colleges and public universities do not have institutional funds to distribute, and these schools may not require the CSS Profile. When you apply to a college or career school, inquire at your school’s admissions office or financial aid office.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as the FAFSA) is a form that you fill out annually to determine your eligibility for federal student financial aid. Federal programs include Pell grants, Stafford loans, PLUS loans, and work-study programs. 
The program is administered by Federal Student Aid, which is an office of the U.S. Department of Education. Its mission is to ensure that all eligible individuals can access federally funded or federally guaranteed financial assistance for college education.
Most accredited career colleges are eligible to administer federal Title IV education grants, and they will ask you to fill out the FAFSA before your first tuition payment is due. The FAFSA form is available online at the FAFSA website. The application is free, and may be filled out either online or printed out on paper.

What’s the Difference Between the Applications?

The FAFSA and the CSS profile use two different systems to calculate your expected family contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money a school will expect you or your family to contribute, and how much the school will award in grants and scholarships.
FAFSA asks for a different set of financial information than the CSS Profile. For example, FAFSA ignores assets of siblings, all assets of certain families with less than $50,000 of income, and both home and family farm equity. The CSS Profile collects information on estimated academic year family income, medical expenses, elementary and secondary school tuition, and unusual circumstances.
The CSS Profile is generally due earlier in the year than the FAFSA. Individual colleges set their own due dates, and you should plan ahead. Go to the College Board website, review the list of colleges that interest you, and get the due dates for the one(s) you want.

How to get started?

If you are thinking about applying to college or career school, the best way to start is by logging onto a free college directory website like the one below. You enter the search terms that are appropriate for you (such as “bachelor’s degree in psychology” or “online law degree”). 
You’ll be given free information about the schools or programs that fit your criteria. Compare them, and make sure they offer financial aid. Contact the schools and learn more about what they have to offer. When you are accepted into a school, immediately contact the school’s financial aid office and find out which applications they require.
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