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FAFSA vs CSS Profile – Financial Aid

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Vinay Bhaskara in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



In order to apply for financial aid, you will need to use at least one of two platforms: the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile). This article will break down the differences between them.


How Do the FAFSA and CSS Profile Calculate Aid?


Colleges use information about household income and assets to calculate financial aid packages. Most of their determinations are based on your household’s most recent full-year tax return. For example, an applicant in the high school class of 2023 would submit their parents’ or guardians’ tax returns for the 2021 tax year. The FAFSA and CSS Profile differ in how they assess your financial information.


As a general rule of thumb, the aid calculation is usually more generous for families on the FAFSA than it is on the CSS Profile. The reason for this is because the FAFSA doesn’t take into account any equity you have in your primary residence or the value of small family businesses, whereas the CSS profile does take these areas of your finances into account. 


On the other hand, the CSS Profile can award more aid in some cases because it asks for more contextual data about special circumstances, particularly health situations or job losses in your family. The CSS Profile is used by the schools that are the most generous with their financial aid, since it gives colleges a more in-depth look into your demonstrated financial need.


How Does a Divorce Affect Financial Aid?


The FAFSA and CSS Profile handle situations involving divorced parents quite differently. The CSS Profile is much less generous here because it takes into account the finances of both parents combined, whereas the FAFSA only considers the financial situation of your custodial parent. In the context of financial aid applications, the custodial parent is the adult you’ve lived with the most in the past 12 months. 


Some technicalities to consider are that the CSS Profile will consider the income and assets of your custodial parent’s new spouse if they get remarried. Prenuptial agreements do not change these cases, even if your custodial parent signs one that says that your stepparent will not pay for education costs for children from their previous marriage. Colleges are essentially the only legal body in the entire United States that can ignore a prenuptial agreement.


How to Report Financial Changes


You may be wondering how aid works after your freshman year of college, as finances often change. The answer is that your aid package can increase or decrease each year depending on your family’s financial situation while you are attending college. Colleges will see most of the changes to your financial situation after you re-apply for financial aid each year. Your financial aid award will not substantially change unless your family’s finances have fluctuated by more than several thousand dollars. 


Communicating changes that have happened to your financial situation is a very important part of determining your aid package. These changes could include anything from a large medical expense to your parents taking money out of their IRA to pay for a wedding. Such events could either make your income appear higher on paper, or they could result in large expenses that effectively lower your income.


In any case, the first step to take to communicate these changes to colleges is to write the information directly into the FAFSA or CSS Profile. After you’ve submitted your financial aid applications and been accepted to colleges, you should write a letter to those schools’ financial aid offices. In that letter, you will want to provide supporting documentation for the claims that you’re making. Beyond that, some colleges also offer an appeals process that will allow you to prove your case for additional financial aid. 


Lastly, you can negotiate aid packages that are not large enough to make college affordable for you. If you have multiple aid offers, you can ask colleges to match your highest offer. Explaining extenuating circumstances is another strategy that you can use when negotiating.