October 1 is an important day in the financial aid process. It’s the first day students can access and submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile for the 2023-2024 academic year. If you’re not sure what these forms are and whether or not to submit them, look no further. All the basic information you will need is right here.
Filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile
Who should submit the CSS Profile and the FAFSA?
Any U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen who is seeking need-based aid from post-secondary institutions must submit the FAFSA, the acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The first thing to understand about the FAFSA is that it is the student’s form, not the parent’s. Many parents complete it on behalf of their child, and if the student is under 18 the parent will be required to co-sign. But when the questions refer to “you” or “your” they are addressing the student, not the parent.
Before beginning the FAFSA, the student must initiate the process by creating their Federal Student Aid Identification number, or FSA ID. It is their electronic signature. Once that’s created, the parent can create their own FSA ID if they expect to co-sign the FAFSA or want access to it. Students or parents who need to create their FSA ID should click here.
With FSA ID in hand, you can begin the FAFSA here. You can list up to ten colleges on this online form before submitting it. If the student is applying to more than ten colleges, it is important to know how to do this. Click here to learn how to add more than ten schools to your FAFSA.
What you need to know about the CSS Profile
In addition to the FAFSA, about 185 undergraduate institutions require a second form if you are applying for need-based aid: the CSS Profile, owned and operated by the College Board. Your intelligence will be tested as you complete this far more complex and invasive form. You can find the list of schools that require it here. Like the FAFSA,the CSS Profile is submitted online listing all the colleges the student is applying to. You can begin the CSS Profile here.
A small number of institutions require that an applicant wishing to be considered for merit (non-need) aid submit the FAFSA, the Profile, or both. It is best to check on the college website or financial aid office to learn their policy.
What do the CSS Profile and the FAFSA Ask?
The biggest factor in need eligibility is income. These forms will look at the income you reported on your federal tax returns two years prior to the year your child will enroll in college. So if your child is currently a senior in high school and will be entering college in the fall of 2023, the “base tax year” will be 2021.
These forms also ask about your assets—checking and savings accounts, investments, trust funds, 529 college savings plans, real estate you own other than your primary residence, and the value of the businesses you own. The assets you report are those you own at the time you are completing the form, not from the income-reporting year.
Art, jewelry, cars, and retirement accounts are not considered assets in the needs methodologies. But such demographic information as the number of dependent children, state of residence, and age of the older parent are considered in the needs methodologies.
A few days after submitting the FAFSA the student will receive an email from the Department of Education with a link to their Student Aid Report. Practically hidden in this one-page report is a six- or seven-digit number usually beginning with several zeroes and no dollar sign. It looks more like a serial number than a heartbreakingly large dollar amount. This is your “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC.
It is the number upon which your child’s financial aid award is determined at schools using the FAFSA. The CSS Profile does not generate such a number, making it more difficult (but not impossible) to begin to estimate what your costs will be at those schools.
What are the differences between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?
If the student’s parents are divorced or separated, the custodial parent is defined as the parent with whom the student has spent more time during the year to date. On the FAFSA, only the custodial parent (and their spouse if remarried) reports their financial information. The noncustodial parent is ignored. The Profile, however, does ask the student to name both biological parents and any current stepparents. Most Profile colleges will require the noncustodial parent to complete and submit their own Profile and will use the financial information of both biological parents and their spouses in the calculation of the student’s need.
Home equity is defined as the difference between the current fair market value of a home and the remaining balance on the mortgage. On the FAFSA, equity in the primary home is not a reportable asset, but on the Profile it is.
Net worth of a family-owned business or farm is defined as the difference between its current fair market value and its total outstanding debt (mortgages, liens, lines of credit, etc.). On the FAFSA, the value of a family-owned business or farm with 100 or fewer employees is not a reportable asset, but on the Profile it is.
Which form will yield a bigger award?
Because of these and other differences between the FAFSA’s federal methodology and the CSS Profile’s institutional methodology, the student’s calculated need may vary significantly between these two forms. The FAFSA can advantage divorced or separated parents if the custodial parent has lower income, fewer assets, and has not remarried. The FAFSA can also advantage homeowners because it doesn’t look at home equity in the primary residence, and the Profile can be friendlier to renters for the same reason.
The Profile penalizes assets at a slightly lower rate (5%) than the FAFSA (5.64%). And because of their prestige and large cash reserves, many Profile schools are committed to meeting the full need, or close to the full need, of their students, often yielding very generous need-based financial aid awards. Ultimately, the net cost of college will depend on many factors: the student’s demonstrated financial need, the historical generosity of the institution’s financial aid policies, the sticker price of the institution, and the student’s competitiveness in the applicant pool.
What are the deadlines for the CSS Profile and FAFSA?
Institutions have varied financial aid deadlines. These may be the same as the institutional application deadline, or very different. For high school seniors applying during the early decision or early action rounds, the financial aid deadline may be as early as November 1, allowing less than a month to complete and submit the forms. For students applying in the regular decision round, the financial aid deadline may be as late as early March. Since these forms are typically submitted once online to all the colleges requiring them for financial aid, it is crucial that they be submitted no later than the earliest deadline of the schools on the student’s list.
It’s necessary that students or their parents consult each college’s website, or call the financial aid office, to verify the required forms and deadlines. Create a spreadsheet or other simple document to keep track. Missing a deadline can seriously jeopardize a student’s eligibility for need-based aid.
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