FAFSA and CSS Profile: Tips, Resources, and Mistakes to Avoid

October 1, 2022 was the first day families could access, complete, and submit the 2023-2024 FAFSA and CSS Profile. Our friends at Big J Educational Consulting have give us 21 of the most important things your family needs to know to manage the financial aid application process successfully.

Families with college students need to understand all about the FAFSA. (Twenty20 @criene)

Guide to completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile

  1. For current seniors and transfers applying to college for the 2023-2024 school year, the family’s 2021 tax returns will be required. Be sure these have already been submitted and processed.
  2. It is the student’s FAFSA and CSS Profile, not the parent’s, though often adults complete these forms on the student’s behalf.
  3. Students should begin the process by creating their Federal Student Aid ID. This is their digital fingerprint associated with their name and email address. Here is where they should go to create their FAFSA ID. 
  4. Anyone else who expects to access the student’s FAFSA must create their own FAFSA ID, but only after the student has created theirs. If the student is a dependent and younger than 24 years old, the parent will need to cosign the FAFSA and require their own FAFSA ID.
  5. After the student has created their FAFSA ID, their FAFSA can be started here.
  6. About 185 undergraduate institutions require the CSS Profile for institutional need-based aid. Here is the list of institutions, but it is always best to verify with the institution itself because this list is not always accurate.
  7. Within a few hours of submitting the FAFSA, the student should receive an email that it has been successfully processed. Within a few days, they should receive another email containing a link to their Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR contains a crucially important number — their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Parents overseeing the process should tell their children to forward all Department of Education emails to them, which may also include requests for further verification and documentation.
  8. When beginning the FAFSA, the best practice is to select the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). This will automatically populate many of the FAFSA’s questions directly from the federal tax returns, making completion much simpler. Under Department of Education guidelines, these populated fields are shielded from the filer, though the financial aid offices will be able to view the numbers. If the DRT is not selected, financial aid offices will most likely request further verification from the filer that the numbers they have manually entered agree with their tax returns. 
  9. In certain circumstances, a filer will be ineligible to select the DRT. Here are the DRT rules.
  10. In cases of separation, divorce, and non-traditional families, it may be unclear who should be listed as the parent on the FAFSA. Here are the rules for parents who are divorced or have a non-traditional family.
  11. Since these forms are designed to be submitted once, listing all colleges, they must be submitted before the earliest financial aid deadline. If a student applies in the early decision or action round, the deadline could be as soon as November 1. 
  12. The FAFSA allows the applicant to list ten colleges only. If the student is applying to more, here are the instructions for sending the FAFSA to more than ten colleges.
  13. Does it matter in which order I list my schools on the FAFSA? Annoyingly, a few states require that an eligible in-state institution be listed at the top of the FAFSA for the student to qualify for state financial aid. Here are the instructions regarding the order of schools on the FAFSA. Institutions will not see any other institution on their ISIR, so after listing an eligible in-state school at the top, the order of colleges is irrelevant. 
  14. Financial aid deadlines vary significantly from school to school. The applicant must know these deadlines, available on the college’s website or by calling the financial aid office. Missing a financial aid deadline can seriously jeopardize a student’s eligibility for aid.
  15. Common mistake: If a parent is the custodian of a 529 college savings plan for which the student is the beneficiary, be sure to list this as a parent asset, not a student asset. Parent assets will increase the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) by 5 to 5.64 percent of those assets per year, and student assets will increase the EFC by 20 to 25 percent of those assets per year.
  16. Common mistake: It may be confusing to figure out where to list a particular asset on these forms, but the important thing is not to list it twice. Doing so will reduce the financial aid a student is eligible to receive.
  17. Many colleges will ask on the college application if the student expects to apply for need-based aid. The answer must be accurate and truthful. If the student selects “no” and then submits the FAFSA (and CSS Profile) to the college, one of three things may happen: 1) the college contacts the student to clarify whether or not they’re applying for need-based aid, inconveniencing an already overworked financial aid office; 2) the college doesn’t contact the student and processes the forms assuming the student is applying for need-based aid, or 3) the college doesn’t contact the student and assumes the student is not applying for need-based aid. The student would still be eligible for federal aid (student loans and Pell Grants) but may be ineligible for institutional grants, often the largest source of need-based aid. So it’s best to answer this question accurately the first time and not try to game the system. 
  18. Most schools that offer merit aid do not require the FAFSA or CSS Profile for merit aid consideration. But a few do, and specific scholarships at other colleges may also require the FAFSA. Because there is no curated list of these schools and scholarships, it is the applicant’s responsibility to learn from each of their prospective institutions whether financial aid forms are required for merit aid consideration. This information can be found on the college’s website or by speaking directly with the admission office.
  19. Families applying for need-based financial aid should understand that the annual limit of federal student loans is usually included in the financial aid award. A few highly selective schools with large endowments have replaced these loans with additional institutional grants. For dependent undergraduate students, these limits are $5,500 for freshmen, $6,500 for sophomores, $7,500 for juniors, and $7,500 for seniors. For undergraduates requiring more than four years to complete their degree, the $27,000 total undergraduate loan limit increases to $31,000. For those borrowing for the current 2022-2023 school year, the interest rate is 4.99%, and the loan fee is about 1%. With its built-in protections and low cost, federal undergraduate student loans are the best option for students who want to borrow. 
  20. Federal Direct Unsubsidized Undergraduate Loans are not based on financial need–any full-time student can qualify. For families who decide not to apply for need-based aid but who do want to make use of the federal student loan program, the FAFSA must be submitted. My recommendation is to check “no” on the college application asking if the student intends to apply for need-based financial aid, to deposit at the school of their choice by May 1 of the student’s senior year of high school, and then to submit the FAFSA after that. It’s best to contact the financial aid office to let them know that the FAFSA was submitted for the purpose of federal student loans only. This way, there is no confusion over whether the student is, or is not, applying for need-based aid.
  21. Most questions on the FAFSA and CSS Profile have embedded explanations or point to specific line items in the federal tax returns. For those filers requiring further assistance, the help line phone numbers are 800-433-3243 (FAFSA), 844-202-0524 (CSS Profile domestic students), and 212-299-0096 (CSS Profile international students).

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It’s Time to Have the Tough Talk About College Educational consultant Jeff Levy guides parents through the conversation they need about how much they can afford to pay for college.

About Jeff Levy

Jeff Levy has been an educational consultant since 2007, based in the Los Angeles area. His students live in Southern California and throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

In 2014, he earned the designation of Certified Educational Planner, the highest level of competency awarded in the profession. He is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), where he was a founding member of its Subcommittee on College Affordability and Financial Aid. Jeff is also a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Western Association for College Admission Counseling, and the National College Advocacy Group.

Jeff has been an instructor at UC San Diego Extension and co-designed its course on college affordability and financial aid, and is a member of the faculty at IECA’s Summer Training Institute. He is the Grown & Flown financial aid advisor, and presents regularly at national conferences and community events on many topics related to college admission and affordability.

More about Jeff Levy and his educational consulting practice.

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