The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”) and the College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile (“CSS Profile”) are the most common forms to apply for financial aid. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal aid and the CSS Profile is used to determine eligibility for private institutional funds. Both applications are necessary to establish eligibility for all available sources of financial aid.
There are variations in the way the two applications gather information and evaluate criteria to determine need. Whereas Federal financial aid is calculated based on a strict formula across all students nationwide, the CSS Profile allows colleges to calculate aid eligibility for their programs based on whatever criteria they set. Hence, the questions on one school’s CSS Profile may vary significantly from another school’s. In general, the CSS Profile asks for more detailed information than the FAFSA.
The FAFSA is a federal form prescribed by Congressional legislation. Its calculations, known as the “Federal Methodology,” are solely to determine eligibility for federal aid, including Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans and Federal Work-Study Jobs. The FAFSA takes into account the family’s income, assets, benefits, family size and number of household members in college. The income information is based on the tax returns of the prior year and an estimate for the current year. Within three weeks of filing the student receives a Student Aid Report (“SAR”) that gives the family’s “Expected Family Contribution” (“EFC”).
The CSS Profile, a service of the College Board, is required by many private colleges and universities to determine eligibility for non-government financial aid, such as the institution's own grants, loans and scholarships. The CSS Profile considers factors not on the FAFSA form, such as the value of a parent’s home, insurance contract values and annual retirement plan contributions. It includes an expected minimum student contribution (which is fulfilled by summer and school-year jobs).
The CSS Profile provides a nominal computation of a family's EFC through a series of calculations known as the “Institutional Methodology”. However, colleges utilizing the CSS Profile are free to vary from this method, because they are not bound by law in their assessment of "need". One example of variance among colleges is the way home equity contributes towards EFC. The College Board’s nominal computation assumes that 5% of home equity is available for the EFC. However, some colleges choose not to assess home equity at all.
Parents and students who anticipate a need for financial aid are advised to start work early on the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Both can be filed starting on October 1 of the year before the school year in which the aid will be used. The FAFSA can be filed as late as June 30 of that school year. Deadlines for the CSS Profile are set by each college. Filing early will increase the likelihood of a timely reply concerning financial aid.