FAFSA? CSS profile? Here’s financial aid help

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Q. What’s the difference between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?
— Planning for college

A. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and the CSS Profile are both used to determine financial aid for college students.

The FAFSA is required to apply for federal financial aid such as Pell grants or loans, said Gregory Chebuske, an Accredited Investment Fiduciary with U.S. Financial Services in Fairfield.

Some states and schools also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own scholarships and grants, he said.

“The FAFSA uses your asset and income information, as well as your student’s, to calculate your expected family contribution, or EFC,” Chebuske said. “This is the minimum amount that your family will be expected to contribute toward your child’s education during the following year.”

The CSS Profile, administered by the College Board, is the application used by about 400 colleges and scholarship programs to determine eligibility for their own aid dollars.

“You might also have to fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile to qualify your child for merit aid, even though these awards are based on achievements in academics, sports or other extracurricular activities, not finances,” he said.

Chebuske said the CSS Profile can vary from school to school, but it generally requires more information than the FAFSA and weights income and assets differently.

For instance, unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile often asks for the noncustodial parent’s financial information in cases of divorce and separation.

The FAFSA excludes the value of small businesses and nonqualified annuities, as well as your primary residence’s home equity, from aid calculations. The CSS Profile asks about such assets.

There are other differences.

“The FAFSA considers gifts made to parents — including by grandparents who want to help with college costs — assets, which get more favorable treatment in determining aid eligibility than income,” Chebuske said. “On the CSS Profile, such gifts are generally considered income.”

Chebuske said schools that use the CSS Profile also collect information on your family’s estimated academic year income, medical expenses, elementary school tuition and any other circumstances that may affect your ability to pay.

The additional information on the CSS profile is meant to help aid officers better understand your family’s ability to pay for college, not hurt your child’s aid eligibility, he said. The FAFSA aid calculation won’t necessarily produce a more generous aid package.

“But because of the differences, your child could receive a dramatically different level of need-based aid from different schools,” Chebuske said.

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This post was first published in January 2017.

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.