CSS Is One Source of College Financial Aid You Can't Afford to Overlook

When it comes to applying for financial aid for college, most families know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is important for all college-bound individuals to apply for FAFSA, but there is also another important financial aid program to apply for alongside the FAFSA — the College Scholarship Service Profile, a.k.a the CSS PROFILE.

The CSS PROFILE application is created by the College Board, the same people who create the SAT, and used by over 300 colleges and universities nationwide. Where FAFSA is an application for federal aid, PROFILE is for nonfederal financial aid, usually money that the school has control over doling out. (See also: What to Do if You Didn't Save for Your Child's College)

When to Apply to CSS?

Individuals can apply for CSS as early as October 1st. The College Board encourages applicants to fill out their PROFILE no later than two weeks before their school's priority filing period.

Does the CSS Cost Money?

Yes, the CSS PROFILE application costs $25 for the initial application, and $16 for each additional report. However, there is a fee waiver available for low-income students, as well as individuals who have received a fee waiver for the SAT. Typically families who make less than $40,000 a year or individuals under 24 years of age who are orphans and wards of the court will qualify for a fee waiver. (See also: 8 Ways College Students Can Save Money Before Class Starts)

Should You Apply for the CSS or FAFSA?

It is very important to note that the CSS does not replace the FAFSA. Instead, it is an additional application required for some colleges. You should apply for both financial aid programs if your school is one of the 300 listed by College Board. If your school is not on the list, then you will not have to fill out the CSS. The list is made up of mostly private schools, and the only state college on the list is Colorado State University.

What Are the Differences Between CSS and FAFSA?

The two applications have quite a few differences that families should be aware of. First off, the CSS calculates family assets and income a little differently than the FAFSA does. This can potentially hurt applicants, causing them to receive less aid.

For example, the FAFSA considers gifts made to the parents, including monetary gifts grandparents give to parents for the use of college, as assets. This allows the student to remain eligible for aid. However, CSS considers the same type of gift as income, which would reflect in the aid package.

On the plus side, CSS does collect a more in-depth look at your family's finances. For example, the FAFSA does not take into account if you are paying medical expenses or tuition for younger children's schooling. CSS looks at a wide range of circumstances in order to determine what your family can afford.

Another important difference to remember is that some schools require divorced families to fill out an additional form. The list of the 300 schools will also inform you if your school wants the details of the noncustodial parent's financial information. If so, you will need to fill out an additional Noncustodial PROFILE.

How Does the CSS Benefit Families?

In many cases, the CSS PROFILE will allow families to receive a financial aid package for 90% to 100 percent of the money they need to attend college. However, it is important to note that this aid package is not always free money. For most families, the financial aid package will also include loans, most likely a mix of private loans and Parent PLUS loans.

Families considered high needs, usually those who make less than $40,000 per year, are more likely to receive aid packages that do not have loans in them.

Financial aid packages might be presented to families as one lump sum. It is important to sit down with an adviser and know the break down for the aid given. Know what is free aid (aid that never has to be repaid), and know how much of the aid is in the form of loans. It is also important to know what types of loans they are offering to you. You don't want to accept loans at a higher interest than you can get on your own.

For more information on the CSS PROFILE, visit the College Board website for an interactive tutorial, as well as a list of recently asked questions. You can also talk with your child's college adviser for more information and resources.

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