Understanding financial aid forms

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Q. I know I have to fill out the FAFSA, but some of my son’s schools also want the CSS Profile. What’s the difference and why do they need both?
— Applying soon

A. Applying for financial aid is a rite of passage for all college-bound students and their families.

When you apply for financial aid, each college may have its own requirements and information requests, but every college wants to see your FAFSA.

FAFSA, short for Free Application for Student Aid, is a form that all students who want financial aid must complete, said David Slater, co-founder of College Benefits Research Group (CBRG) in Roseland.

Slater said the FAFSA is for federal grants, loans, and work-study funds for colleges and career schools, and it’s the largest provider of student financial aid, with about 13 million students receiving funds at more than 6,200 institutions across the nation.

“The FAFSA asks for an overview of the student’s and parents’ incomes, backed by one’s tax return forms,” Slater said. “In this way it monitors schools, financial entities, as well as students to ensure compliance with the laws governing the federal student aid programs.”

Then there’s the College Scholarship Service Profile, commonly known as the CSS Profile.

This is the form that allows students to be considered to receive financial grants from hundreds of schools and scholarships programs around the nation, Slater said.

“It is an online service offered by The College Board to help institutions obtain more detailed information about the students and their families’ financial situation relating to the ability to pay for college-related expenses,” Slater said.

He said there’s a $25 fee for the first school you send the application to, and $16 for each additional institution. Lower income families are able to apply for a fee waiver.

Now, the difference between the forms.

The CSS Profile is mainly required by the more selective private colleges and requires much more detailed information than the FAFSA, such as the value and debt of homes, retirement accounts and businesses, Slater said. It also has additional supplemental sections where individual colleges can add their own questions.

He said the FAFSA is much more basic than the CSS Profile.

“It does not ask about your home — though it does ask about the value of property other than your primary residence, if applicable — or retirement accounts,” Slater said.

Both forms are filed electronically but only the FAFSA can be electronically updated. Any changes to the CSS Profile must be done on paper and sent to each college to make the adjustments, he said.

“The CSS Profile is available as early as Oct. 1, while the FAFSA for the class of 2016 becomes available on Jan. 1,” Slater said. “The process will change for the class of 2017, as the FAFSA will also be available as early as Oct. 1.”

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This story was first posted in October 2015.

NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.