• Alison Merzel

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile - what is the difference?

You have likely heard of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the paperwork you file starting October 1 each year to request federal financial aid to assist with the cost of a college education. Any college or university that awards federal aid (grants, loans, work-study) is required to use the FAFSA. Before you complete the FAFSA, the student will create an FSA ID.


The FAFSA requires the following information:

  • Student's social security number

  • Parents' social security numbers for dependent students

  • Driver's license number, if you have one

  • Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen

  • Federal tax information or tax returns including W-2 for student and parents of dependent students

  • Records of untaxed income for student and parents of dependent students

  • Cash, savings, and checking account balances for student and parents of dependent students

  • Investments other than the home in which you live for student and parents of dependent students

Here is a worksheet that helps you prepare to complete the form. Note that the FAFSA uses what is called Prior Prior Year (PPY) income and tax information, so for Fall 2021 applications, you would use 2019 data.


The CSS Profile is run by the College Board and is used by hundreds of colleges, universities, and scholarship programs to determine institutional aid. The CSS Profile is typically used by selective private institutions and determines financial aid eligibility through a different formula than the FAFSA. It asks more questions about a family's assets to better understand the full financial picture of a family and to better assess how to package institutional financial aid for each student.


While the FAFSA is required to qualify for federal aid, the CSS Profile only needs to be completed if required by the institution(s) to which you are applying. While it is typically used to determine financial need, some schools do use the Profile to determine merit aid. It is your responsibility to find out whether the school uses it and how it is used.


Both of these applications consider EFC or your family's Expected Family Contribution, which you can calculate using an EFC calculator like this. The FAFSA uses the Federal Methodology and the CSS Profile uses the Institutional Methodology.


The cost for an initial profile for one college is $25 and $16 per college after that. Both forms become available on October 1 and the sooner you complete them, the better. Find out the earliest financial aid deadline and submit the forms before then. Students planning to enroll in Fall 2021 will be submitting the forms this fall 2020, so it isn't too early to start gathering the necessary information to complete them.



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