Before you go to college either for your freshman year, or as a returning student, you’ll want to fill out your financial aid applications. This is crucial if you expect to receive any aid either from the federal government, your state, or your institution.
By now you’ve probably heard of both the Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS). Both are necessary to ensure you receive some type of aid for the following year.
However, these two applications mean different things and require different information which will be discussed in this post. We will talk about the differences between these applications, what they mean, and how they can be filled out. The end result should hopefully help you receive more financial aid from your institution.
What is the Difference Between the FAFSA and CSS?
The FAFSA will give you access to federal financial aid like Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and more. It will also help your school determine loan offers -- traditionally subsidized and unsubsidized loans. It is filled out on the Federal Student Aid Website.
CSS applications are used by colleges and universities to determine the non-governmental financial aid you will receive from your school. They are most often used by private institutions with large endowments, but are sometimes used by public schools. The application will be used to determine scholarships, grants, and federal work-study opportunities from the institution. The CSS profile can be submitted through the College Board website.
What are the Biggest Differences?
Cost: The FAFSA is free to fill out, but the CSS application comes at a cost. There is a $9 base fee plus an additional $16 per school -- or $25 if only applying for one school. However, the application fee can be waived for eligible students. It’s important to note that while most colleges and universities require the CSS application, not all do.
Questions asked: The CSS will require more information then the FAFSA. The CSS looks at your ability to pay for school and will ask for your parents financial status as well as your own. Institutions are able to customize questions and ask ones that do not appear on the FAFSA. It will take more time to complete, and could be more difficult for students with extenuating circumstances like divorced, separated, or never-married parents. If you have divorced parents, the application will ask for the financial information from each parent and their spouse, if they are remarried. However, this could be beneficial. For example, if a student lives with only one parent, and they are earning less money than the other parent -- the student could be offered more money.
Submission Deadline. The FAFSA has a single deadline to submit the application, whereas each school has their own deadline for the CSS. These usually align with admissions deadlines.
How Will the CSS Application Affect My Award Package?
The CSS might have a large impact, or it might not -- and this will all depend on your family’s financial status. It’s important to remember that the application is looking for need-based financial aid.
If the school determines that you require extra support, it could result in an institutional scholarship and a lower net price to attend that school. For others, the CSS may have no large impact.
What is a Financial Award Package?
Before submitting these applications, you should know what the purpose of the applications are, and it might affect how you proceed in filling them out. If you are in the process of deciding where you will attend college, you might be looking to put multiple schools on your profile. Ultimately, you will make a final decision and the school you commit to will send you a financial award package.
This package will include a number of different award types and the amount that each is worth. There will usually be a total divided in half to determine how much aid you will receive each semester.
Your award package will include loans, scholarships, grants, and a federal work-study. You will receive a breakdown of the amounts received in subsidized and unsubsidized loans. These loans will be determined by your college based on how much financial aid you qualify for during that particular year.
Subsidized loans are often deemed the better of the two because the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on the loan while you’re in school at least half-time, for the first six months after you leave school, and during a deferment period. However, you are responsible for paying the interest on an unsubsidized loan at all times.
The CSS won’t affect these loans, but it will affect grants and scholarships, especially those given by the institution. If you qualify for more financial aid, this may result in a larger or an additional scholarship. Grants are very similar to scholarships in that they typically do not have to be repaid.
Lastly, a federal work-study will be on your award package, if you qualify. Typically, you have to be paying a certain amount of money to the school to qualify for a work-study.
Once you receive an award package, do not panic. They are not normally binding contracts, and students often have the ability to edit them. For example, a student can change an award and the amount they receive for that award. So, if you received a $1,000 unsubsidized loan, you could either eliminate the award completely or change the amount to $500 or whatever number you want.
Once you have made adjustments, you will send the award package back to the school and they will mail you an updated package that reflects your corrections, if you have any.
How to Fill Out a CSS Profile
Step one: Create an account with the college board. You might already have one if you took the SAT test.
Step two: Prepare to fill out your profile by gathering the necessary information. If you’ve already filled out the FAFSA, you’ve submitted your parents tax information, and you’ll need it again for the CSS. The FAFSA will ask for tax returns that were completed two years prior to you attending college. So if you’re attending college as a freshman in 2022-2023, then you will need your parents’ 2020 tax information. However, you will need more than this -- your parents' most recent tax returns, W2’s and other earned income forms, untaxed income, benefits, assets, bank statements, and possibly more. You will also need to know things like how much money you have in the bank, give your tax information if you hold a job, and how much of a personal contribution you plan to make towards paying for college.
Step 3: Pick your colleges. You can add as many as you want. If you have already been accepted to a school and have committed there, then you should only select that one.
Step 4: Complete the application. At first you will be repeating much of the same information as the FAFSA -- general questions about your family and yourself. Then it will move to more in-depth questions, like asking you to describe any special circumstances your family might have faced recently. This would be where you describe any financial hardships that are not noticeable through tax documentation. For example, if your family went through an unexpected financial crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic making a parent unable to get paid for two weeks, then you should describe it.
Step 5: Submit the application either by paying the fee or having the fee waived.
Step 6: Check the status of your application. After submission, you can return to the application and add additional schools for an extra fee.
How to Remove Schools From Your CSS Profile
Both you and your parents might have a CSS account, and both can remove schools from your profile. Simply login to your account. From the student’s profile, go to the “colleges” tab and from there you should see “my list of colleges.” For every school you want to remove, click on the red X icon that appears next to the name of the college you want to remove. Don’t forget to save your progress.
You shouldn’t automatically fill out the CSS. Before you begin, check to make sure it is required by your institution. If not, you don’t have to fill it out. If it is required, then definitely fill it out. If you are still between schools, fill it out just to be safe and avoid any future issues. As always, you need to fill out the FAFSA each year and you should complete that along with your CSS if it is needed.