The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”) and the College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile (“CSS Profile”) are the most commonly-used forms to apply for financial aid. The FAFSA determines eligibility for federal aid and the CSS Profile is used for private institutional funds.
The FAFSA applies to all students nationwide. 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. There is a tool that automatically transfers pertinent income information from tax returns into the FAFSA form.
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, allows colleges to calculate aid eligibility based on whatever criteria they set, because they are not bound by law in their assessment of "need". It computes a family's EFC through a series of calculations known as the “Institutional Methodology”.
The CSS Profile 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. It applies factors not considered 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).
Parents and students who anticipate a need for financial aid are advised to start work early on the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The FAFSA is due between October 1 and June 30 and the CSS Profile is due between October 1 and the deadline set by each college. Filing early will increase the likelihood of a timely reply concerning financial aid.