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What are the differences between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?

December 16, 2018

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile are two extensive questionnaires used by colleges and universities to determine financial aid packages. Though the packages ask for similar information, there are differences in the information required.

What is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by the Department of Education to award federal financial aid from the US government in the form of grants, work-study programs, and loans. When students apply for aid, they do not receive the funding from the government directly. Instead, institutions are allocated a certain amount of financial aid to award to students each year.

In addition to using FAFSA to calculate federal financial aid, many institutions also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid and scholarships offered by the university. This is why students should complete a FAFSA application even if they don’t plan to accept federal financial aid.

What is the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile?

The CSS Profile is a private survey developed by College Board, the creators of the SAT and other standardized tests. The CSS Profile is an independent survey of financial assets both for prospective students and their parents. While the CSS requests financial information, in some cases the survey requests information beyond what is required by the FAFSA.

While nearly every student applying to college in the US will submit a FAFSA, you will only submit the CSS Profile if applying to a school that uses it. There are currently 300-400 schools using the CSS Profile. Private colleges and universities use the CSS Profile to determine eligibility for institutional awards and grants. The FAFSA determines eligibility for federal financial aid programs.


Key Differences Between the FAFSA and CSS Profile


Fee Free $25 for one school, $16 per additional school (need-based waivers available)
Type of aid Grants, scholarships, and loans from the US federal government Grants, scholarships, and loans from the institution or state
Eligibility US citizens and some non-citizens include permanent residents, refugees, and asylum seekers US students and international students
Required Information Information about your family's assets, housing, income  Information about your family's assets, housing, income, business income and other factors such as medical expenses that affect your finances
How to Complete Online, mobile app, paper Online only
Participation All post-secondary institutions in the US offering federal aid CSS partner institutions only



The Biggest Difference Between the FAFSA and CSS Profile

The most significant difference between the FAFSA and CSS profile is that the CSS profile asks for more information about you and your family’s financial situation, which can be both good and bad. Some information that is not considered on the FAFSA, such as the value of your family’s small business, is considered an asset on the CSS profile.

On the other hand, the CSS also takes into account extenuating circumstances, such as medical expenses that may limit your ability to pay tuition. The aim of the CSS is not to reduce your financial aid package, but rather to provide a complete picture of your family’s ability to pay for college.

Should I complete the FAFSA, CSS profile, or both?

Every student applying to attend a university in the USA should submit the FAFSA. There are free grants, work-study, and loans, which offer the best options for most students because many forms of federal aid don’t have to be paid back. Also, federal student loans provide much favorable interest rates and repayment terms than private student loans and even state or institutional loans.

If you go to a CSS member school, you should also complete a CSS Profile. If you cannot afford the fee, contact the school’s financial aid office to obtain a fee waiver.

Both the CSS Profile and FAFSA are essential tools that can help you earn free aid in the form of scholarships and grants that you don’t have to pay back. Although both programs are used to evaluate for need-based aid, many colleges also use the information to provide support to students that won’t qualify for need-based aid through institutional grants and stipends. The CSS Profile and FAFSA are useful tools to help you fund your college education.