What are the Differences Between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?

By Thomas Broderick

Published on September 3, 2021

What are the Differences Between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?

AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to find your fit?

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile



Prospective and current college students can use the FAFSA application to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid. Another popular financial aid form includes the CSS Profile, which 400 colleges and universities use to award need-based institutional aid.

The following sections break down the differences between the two applications, instructions for filling them out, and answers to common questions.

What is the FAFSA?

The federal government developed the FAFSA application to determine student eligibility for federal financial aid, such as grants, loans, and work-study programs. All prospective and current students should fill out the FAFSA annually. The form requires applicants to submit information such as their Social Security number. They must also submit bank statements and federal income tax returns.

The government distributes FAFSA funds on a first-come, first-served basis. So, learners should complete the FAFSA soon after the annual application window opens on Oct. 1.

What is the CSS Profile?

Hundreds of colleges and universities require applicants and current students to submit the CSS Profile. Like the FAFSA, the profile's application window opens annually on Oct. 1. Required documents include tax returns, W-2s and additional income records, bank statements, and other financial holdings. Filling out the profile typically takes longer than filling out the FAFSA.

Differences Between the FAFSA and CSS Profile
FAFSA CSS Profile
Fee Free $25 for the initial CSS Profile and one college report. Extra reports cost $16
*Free for eligible students
Type of Aid Federal and state aid: grants, scholarships, work-study, student loans Non-federal institutional aid such as grants, scholarships, and work-study
Financial Questions Family's assets, housing, and income Collects financial information from both parents, and information on medical bills, home value, and school costs for younger siblings.
Participating Schools All postsecondary institutions that offer federal financial aid Only participating institutions

AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Accredited Online College Programs

Explore our featured online programs and find the right match for you today.


Frequently Asked Questions About the FAFSA and the CSS Profile

Q. Should I Complete the FAFSA, CSS Profile, or Both?

All learners should fill out the FAFSA to determine whether they qualify for federal financial aid. Many private and institutional scholarships also require the FAFSA. Students should research whether their college requires the CSS Profile before filling it out.

Q. When Can I Complete the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?

The FAFSA application and CSS Profile both open on Oct. 1. The results apply to the following academic year's financial aid determination. FAFSA deadlines vary by state, but some states require it as early as Dec. 1. Each college uses a different CSS Profile deadline. But most schools require the form between Jan. 1 and March 31.

Q. What Happens if You Make a Mistake on the FAFSA or the CSS Profile?

Students who input the wrong Social Security number on the FAFSA must resubmit the entire form. Other mistakes only require an update. Corrections to the CSS Profile require printing out the original form and handwriting modifications. Submit the corrected profile to a school's financial aid office as soon as possible.

Q. Do the FAFSA and CSS Profile Need to Be Filled Out Every Year?

The FAFSA and CSS Profile require new and returning college students to submit the form annually. This allows learners to update their financial information. Some degree-seekers may qualify for more financial aid for the upcoming academic year. Others may receive less or no financial aid.

Q. Do All Colleges Require the CSS Profile?

Approximately 400 colleges and universities require the CSS Profile for undergraduate institutional aid. So, not all students should fill it out. Learners can look up their school using the College Board's database. The College Board uses a unique CSS Code for each college. Learners must use their school's code when creating their profile.

Q. How Does FAFSA Determine Aid?

The FAFSA uses the student's expected family contribution (EFC) to determine aid eligibility. The FAFSA determines this by analyzing the student's (or their family's, if they're a dependent) income, assets, and benefits. Other factors include the total number of family members in the household. Learners whose tuition exceeds their EFC become eligible for federal financial aid.

Q. How Does CSS Profile Determine Aid?

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile does not directly determine aid eligibility. Participating colleges decide this by using a unique formula. The form asks for more financial information than the FAFSA. The CSS Profile asks for financial information such as the student's or their parents' bank statements, retirement accounts, and 529 plans.

How to Apply for the FAFSA



Prospective and returning college students should create a FAFSA account before the application opens on Oct. 1. The account provides students with an FSA ID, which they will use throughout their time in school. Dependents need their parents' Social Security number and the previous year's federal tax information. They also need their untaxed income records and documents about other financial holdings. The FAFSA also asks for a driver's license number, if applicable.

The first section of the FAFSA covers basic personal information. It also covers whether the student qualifies as a dependent. Each page features a question mark icon that provides answers to frequently asked questions. Users must select at least one college or university to receive the FAFSA results.

The FAFSA takes approximately one hour to complete if users know the required financial information. Users who need to pause and later return to their application must create a temporary password.

How to Apply for the CSS Profile



Learners create a CSS Profile on their College Board student account. Parents filling out the profile for their children use the student account too. Required documents include recent tax returns, untaxed income and benefits information, and bank statements.

The submission process involves completing a series of information pages. Each page features a sidebar so users can revisit different pages and track their progress. A completed section features a check mark. As with the FAFSA, the CSS Profile's initial questions determine dependency status. Users upload financial documents using the secure Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC). IDOC allows schools to review these documents in their entirety.

As of July 2021, users pay $25 to submit their CSS profile to one participating college or university. Each additional school costs $16. Some degree-seekers may qualify for a fee waiver, depending on their financial situation. Most users finish the profile in 1-2 hours.

Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and the owner of Broderick Writer LLC. He creates study guides, informational websites, and blog posts for clients in the education field. Thomas is also a published author of over 20 short stories and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

See articles by Thomas

Keep up with the latest

Never miss a detail on the news, trends, and policies that could directly impact your educational path.

AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Do this for you

Explore your possibilities- find schools with programs you’re interested in and clear a path for your future.