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CSS Profile vs. FAFSA: How do they compare?

Apply to both to minimize what you'll pay for college out of pocket.

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For most students, the best way to cover your bases when applying for financial aid is to fill out the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The CSS Profile helps you qualify for private aid offered by your school and scholarship programs. The FAFSA opens you up to federal aid and other private scholarships and grants that the CSS Profile doesn’t cover.

CSS Profile vs. FAFSA

CSS ProfileFAFSA
Types of aid
  • College scholarships, grants and loans
  • Private scholarships and grants
  • Federal student loans
  • Federal grants such as the Pell Grant
  • Federal work-study
  • College and private aid
Cost
  • $25 application fee
  • $16 reporting fee per college or scholarship program
  • Free
Who can apply?All studentsUS citizens and permanent residents
What schools accept it?Around 400 schools and scholarship programsAll Title IV schools
When can I apply?
  • Starting October 1, 2019
  • The deadline varies by school and program
  • Starting October 1, 2019
  • The deadline for all students is June 30, 2021

How do the CSS Profile and FAFSA work?

The CSS Profile and FAFSA are both financial aid applications that determine your eligibility for different types of aid and how much money you can receive. The CSS Profile is generally used for private aid, while the FAFSA covers federal aid that comes directly from the Department of Education (DoE).

Not all schools accept both — in some cases, you may only be able to submit the FAFSA. But if both are available, submit them as soon as you can — even before you know which school you’re attending. This is because many schools and scholarship programs offer aid on a first-come, first-served basis.

What types of aid can I get?

Both applications cover different types of aid — though there are some overlaps.

CSS Profile

  • Scholarships and grants from your school
  • Loans from your school
  • Scholarships and grants from private organizations

FAFSA

  • Federal student loans
  • Federal grants
  • Federal work-study
  • Financial aid from your school and private organizations

The main difference between the CSS Profile and the FAFSA is that the FAFSA covers federal aid and the CSS Profile only covers private aid. In some cases, your school or private organizations might ask you to fill out the FAFSA or both to be considered for private aid, while others ask for only the CSS Profile.

What schools accept the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

The CSS Profile and FAFSA are accepted only at some schools. However, more schools accept the FAFSA than the CSS Profile. It’s uncommon for a school to only accept the CSS Profile.

CSS Profile


Currently, about 400 schools and scholarship programs accept the CSS Profile. You can find out if yours does by checking the College Board’s list of participating institutions or visiting your school’s financial aid website.

FAFSA


All Title IV schools offer federal student aid through the FAFSA — that’s the majority of public and private nonprofit universities in the country. You can find out if your school meets Title IV requirements on the Federal Student Aid website.

What information do they consider?

The CSS Profile and FAFSA both consider your family’s finances. The main difference is that the CSS Profile asks for more details, including information about your family’s businesses, home equity and medical expenses. It also leaves room for you to explain special circumstances the application doesn’t address.

Filling out both gives your school a fuller picture of your family’s finances and can help you qualify for more aid.

How do they calculate my EFC?


One reason why you might want to submit both applications is that they use different formulas for calculating your expected family contribution (EFC) — the amount you and your family are expected to be able to pay for your education out of pocket or with loans. Chances are that one will get you a better deal than the other, though you won’t be able to tell which until after you apply — another reason to fill out both.

How much do they cost?

Another major difference between the two applications is the cost.

CSS Profile

  • Application fee: $25
  • Reporting fee: $16 per school or scholarship program
  • Option for a fee waiver

FAFSA

  • Free for everyone

The CSS Profile might seem like a worse deal at first glance. But it also opens you up to more free aid than the FAFSA, which has a much more limited grant selection. If a school requires the CSS Profile for all institutional grants, the application could more than pay for itself if it means you have to take out fewer student loans.

CSS Profile fee waivers


For most students, the CSS Profile can cost you anywhere from $41 to hundreds of dollars, depending on how many schools and scholarship programs you send it to. But if you can’t afford it, you might be able to qualify for a fee waiver from the College Board or your school. Read our guide to CSS Profile fee waivers to find out if you qualify.

Who can qualify?

While most students are eligible for both, the FAFSA is more restrictive than the CSS Profile.

CSS Profile


Available to all students — including international students and DACA recipients in some cases.

FAFSA


Only available to US citizens and permanent residents who meet other federal aid requirements.

When are the deadlines?

The CSS Profile doesn’t have an an official deadline, while the federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30th of the year you want to apply for aid — so June 30, 2021 for the 2020-2021 academic year. However, if you’re looking to fund the fall and spring semesters, you won’t want to wait until then to submit the FAFSA. That’s because this final deadline would only help you qualify for federal aid for the summer.

Some states also have their own FAFSA deadlines that are earlier than June 30th. And schools typically have their own deadlines for both the FAFSA and CSS Profile — usually on the same day.

School deadlines are often earlier than state and federal deadlines, so you might want to check with your financial aid office first.

When can I apply?


Both the CSS Profile and FAFSA are available on October 1st of the year before the academic year you want to fund. So for the 2020-2021 academic year, both are available starting October 1, 2019.

Most financial aid offices recommend that you submit them as soon as you can after the applications open, regardless of deadlines. This is because many schools and scholarship programs offer funds on a first-come, first-served basis.

How long does the application take?

Both are available as online applications, which you can complete over time. However, the CSS Profile typically takes a few hours, while the FAFSA generally takes less than an hour.

That’s partly because the FAFSA requires less documents and information than the CSS Profile. But it also has an IRS data-retrieval tool, which automatically pulls information from your family’s tax returns to complete a portion of the application.

If your parents are divorced or separated, you might have to fill out two separate CSS Profile applications depending on your school — doubling the time you have to spend.

How often do I have to apply?

When it comes to the CSS Profile, it depends on your school — some require you to renew it every year, while others only accept it one time. But you have to resubmit the FAFSA every year to be considered for federal aid.

Can I predict how much aid I’ll get?

There’s no way to tell exactly how much aid you’ll receive until you get your financial aid award letter from your school. But it’s easier to predict federal aid than private aid.

CSS Profile


The CSS Profile only covers private scholarships and grants, which come with their own criteria that may or may not be subjective. Because of this, there’s no way to really predict how much aid you’ll receive before filling out the profile, other than reaching out to your school’s financial aid office.

FAFSA


You can get an estimate of how much federal aid you’ll receive by using the FAFSA4caster tool on StudentLoans.gov. However, you usually can’t get an estimate of the private scholarships and grants you might qualify for.

Bottom line

If your school accepts both the FAFSA and CSS Profile, consider filling out both. You’ll be considered for a wider range of financial aid and could pay less for your degree — both out of pocket and in student loans. While the CSS Profile takes some time and can be expensive, the potential savings could outweigh the cost if you qualify for more scholarships and grants.

You can learn more about your options to pay for school by reading our guide to student loans. Or check our article on expert advice for applying for financial aid.

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