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    CSS Profile vs. FAFSA: What You Need to Know

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Reviewed by Annie Trout

    Annie has spent the past 18+ years educating students about college admissions opportunities and coaching them through building a financial aid package. She has worked in college access and college admissions for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission/Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, Middle Tennessee State University, and Austin Peay State University.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: October 2nd, 2023
    CSS Profile vs. FAFSA: What You Need to Know

    If you are applying for financial aid, you may have to fill out both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA. Both collect information about your financial situation to help determine your eligibility for financial aid, but there are some key differences when looking at the CSS Profile vs. FAFSA.

    Any students looking to receive federal financial aid will have to fill out the FAFSA. Many  colleges may also require the CSS Profile to determine eligibility for state and institutional aid. Here are the differences between the CSS Profile and the FAFSA. We’ll go over the differences in the information they collect, what they are used for, and how their results may differ.

    Related: How to Apply for Student Loans: Federal and Private

    What is the CSS Profile?

    The CSS Profile is a private form administered by the College Board. The CSS Profile offers opportunities for families to describe any unique circumstances that may affect their ability to pay for college. 

    What is the FAFSA?

    The FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a form that needs to be completed in order to obtain financial aid from the federal government to help pay for college. The FAFSA asks for information about you and your family’s finances. 

    What information do they collect?

    The FAFSA asks for information on your household’s assets and income level. It also collects information about other dependents in the household and basic demographic information about you and your family. It uses this information to calculate your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.

    The CSS Profile collects similar information to the FAFSA, but its questions are more in-depth. If your family owns a business, you’ll have to submit financial documentation about the business. Other financial strains, such as medical expenses, are also taken into account.

    See also: How to renew your FAFSA

    What are the deadlines? 

    The CSS Profile and the FAFSA usually open on October 1 for the following school year. * The deadline for the FAFSA is June 30 of the school year for which you are applying, although you may have to submit earlier depending on your state of residence. The CSS Profile deadline varies based on the school you are applying to. Some schools have deadlines as early as December! 

    *Note: The 2024 FAFSA will not open until sometime in December 2023 due to revisions to the application

    What types of aid do they qualify you for?

    The FAFSA is how all students apply for federal financial aid. This includes the Pell Grant, work study, and government loans. Schools that only require the FAFSA also use it to determine your eligibility for state and institutional need-based aid. 

    In addition to the FAFSA, many schools and states require the CSS Profile. If your school or state is one of these, the CSS Profile will determine your eligibility for state and institutional aid. If your school requires the CSS Profile, make sure to fill out the FAFSA as well in order to qualify for federal aid.

    Don’t miss: When is this year’s FAFSA deadline?

    What is the cost?

    The FAFSA is completely free, no matter how many schools you send it to. This means that you have nothing to lose by filling it out; anyone who could use help paying for college should submit a FAFSA to see what they qualify for. 

    On the other hand, the CSS Profile costs $25 for the first school you send it to, and $16 for each additional school. If you are having trouble paying these fees, check out the fee waivers available through the College Board. Try not to let the cost deter you from submitting a CSS Profile! That $25 can earn you a huge amount in financial aid.

    Related: How to add more schools to the FAFSA

    Who is eligible to apply?

    Any student who is a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen will qualify for some federal student aid, even if that only means federal loans through the FAFSA. The CSS Profile is available to citizens as well as international student applicants. 

    Will they yield different results?

    The CSS Profile and FAFSA typically end up with a similar picture of your household’s financial situation. However, there are a few situations where they might yield dramatically different results:

    If your parents are divorced, the CSS Profile takes into account both of their incomes whereas the FAFSA only examines the finances of one parent. So, if your non-custodial parent makes more money than your custodial parent, you will probably receive more financial aid from schools that don’t require the CSS Profile.

    If your parents own a business or their pay is structured unconventionally, the CSS Profile will likely get a more in-depth perspective on the situation. The FAFSA takes into account fewer types of assets than the CSS Profile.

    Related: When is this year’s CSS Profile deadline?

    CSS Profile vs FAFSA chart

    CSS Profile FAFSA
    Cost $25 for the application and one report to a school.$16for each additional report Free
    Administrator College Board US Department of Education
    Type of aid Institutional  Federal
    Number of questions About 300 About 100
    Schools accepted  Over 400 college, universities and scholarship programs Any college or university that grants federal financial aid
    How to apply Online Online, mobile or by mail
    Application renewal Annually Annually

    Next steps for students

    You can complete the FAFSA on the Federal Student Aid website, and you can complete the CSS Profile on the College Board website. 

    Best of luck, and make sure to check out our guides on how to fill out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile! Also, make sure that you apply for all the scholarships that you qualify for! 

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    Frequently asked questions about the CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

    Do colleges require both the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

    No, not all colleges require both. Most colleges and universities require the FAFSA for federal aid eligibility, but the CSS Profile is typically required by a smaller subset of schools, often private institutions with substantial financial aid resources. 

    What financial information is required for the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

    Both applications will ask for information about your family’s income, assets, expenses, and household size. However, the CSS Profile may delve deeper into your financial situation and may consider factors like noncustodial parent information which the FAFSA does not typically require.

    What is the main difference in the purpose of the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

    The main difference is that the CSS Profile is typically used by colleges and universities to determine eligibility for their institutional aid and scholarships, whereas the FAFSA is used for federal aid programs. 

    Do I need to fill out the CSS Profile every year?

    Yes, in most cases, you will need to fill out the CSS Profile annually if you want to be considered for institutional financial aid. The FAFSA also needs to be renewed each year. 

    Can I apply for scholarships separately from the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

    Yes, in addition to the CSS Profile and FAFSA, you should also explore scholarship opportunities from private organizations, community foundations and other sources. Many scholarships have their own application process and deadlines so it’s important to research and apply for them separately. Be sure to check out our free scholarships search tool! 

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