FAFSA versus CSS-Profile: The Battle of the Financial Aid Forms

Most people believe that FAFSA -- Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- is the end-all when it comes to looking for money for college.

Not so!

In fact, if you do nothing more than file your FAFSA online (which can be done on or after January 1, 2011), you're not likely to see a dime in scholarship and grant money, other than that which the school itself may provide (including work-study and loans) as part of your financial aid package.

If you don't file your FAFSA, look for no money (as in, nada, zippo, gornischt) from your college financial aid office.

As we've noted on this blog, time and time again, you have to begin and carry out an extensive and exhaustive search for scholarship money (it is out there, by the millions, if you know how and where to look, and, beyond that, you actually apply yourself. [HINT: Start by registering and creating a profile at Fastweb, and then, contact your counselor at College Connection on what to do next.]

This post, however, is not about the scholarship search, but rather, completing all of the necessary pre-reqs (what we used to call "paperwork") in order to qualify for those scholarships, grants, loans, assistantships, fellowships, work-study programs and so on, as offered by colleges.

While almost every college insists on the FAFSA filing (and this is widely known among applicants and their parents), many schools also (meaning, "in addition to the FAFSA") require the filing of what is called the CSS-Profile. [Click HERE to see if the college(s) on your list require the CSS-Profile.]

Administered by the College Board (who else?), the CSS-Profile is a more detailed, school-specific filing, versus the general, broad application of FAFSA.

There are subtle -- and not so subtle -- differences, both in the information and data requested of the applicant (and his or her parents) and in the methodology by which financial aid is calculated.

The biggest differences between the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA, as enumerated by finaid.org, are:

  • Submission dates: The CSS PROFILE can be submitted in the fall; FAFSA cannot be submitted before January 1.
  • Specific questions: The CSS PROFILE contains questions specific to the school or program you're applying to; FAFSA contains the same questions for everyone.
  • Different methodology: The CSS PROFILE determines your financial need differently than the FAFSA, taking into account such factors as whether your family owns a home. In general, the CSS PROFILE asks for more detailed information than FAFSA.
  • Minimum student contribution: The CSS PROFILE requires this; the FAFSA doesn't.
  • Greater reliance on professional judgment: The CSS PROFILE gives financial aid counselors greater freedom to grant aid based on a student's particular circumstances.
  • Cost: CSS PROFILE costs $5 plus $18 for each school or scholarship program selected; the FAFSA, as the name implies, is free.
That last distinction, cost, is, of course, not so subtle, and should surprise no one who has ever had to register for anything with College Board. They want even more of your money (as if registration for the SAT and the sending of scores to selected colleges wasn't enough of a money maker).

Imagine that. Charging you money in order to qualify for money. Who but College Board would think of -- and get away with -- such a concept?

While there are nuances to completing and filing both FAFSA and CSS-Profile, the former is relatively straight forward, while the latter presents more of a challenge, mostly because of the details and particulars sought. On both, how you answer and the information you furnish will be used to calculate the now-infamous Expected Family Contribution (EFC), ultimately determining, through formulae of the colleges' own devise (greater secrets Los Alamos did not hold), how much aid you will get, and in what form (i.e., scholarships, work-study, loans).

While FAFSA cannot be completed and filed until after January 1 (you can, however, get an estimate of your financial standing at any time by going to the FAFSA4caster), the CSS-Profile can be completed online beginning on October 1, 2010. It is considered prudent, and we will neither argue nor belabor the point, to file your CSS-Profile early in the game rather than to wait, say, until you complete and file your FAFSA (which itself should be filed as soon as practical after January 1). The reason: Colleges often dole out financial aid awards on a first-come-first-served basis. When the money's gone, it's gone!

Other considerations -- merit, need, program-specific aid among them -- go into the mix when colleges decide who is to get what, and how much, and this, together with the information you provide, will create a matrix that allows the college's financial aid office to paint a financial aid picture for each individual student. With how broad a brush, and what kind of stroke, that picture is drawn is almost entirely dependent upon the content of the CSS-Profile and FAFSA filings.

Confusing? You bet. A bit scary, even, given the costs associated with college and the purse strings held by the folks who will decide your financial aid fate. Absolutely.

Do not take the completion and filing of either FAFSA or CSS-Profile lightly. Do consult with your independent college counselor and/or your financial advisor before you file. And be aware of both State and school deadlines when filing these forms.

Remember. There's money for college in them thar hills. You just have to know where to look, how deep to dig (use a shovel, not a toothpick), and be sure to dot the "i" and cross the "t" on every form you complete and submit, particularly the FAFSA and the CSS-Profile.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer, the authors of referenced articles and websites, and such guest bloggers as may appear.
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