Here’s What You Need To Know About the FAFSA and CSS Profile

Note: This post will be updated once the FAFSA release date is announced. Check back at a later date. 

October 1 used to be the most important day in the financial aid process. It’s the first day students can access and submit the CSS Profile for the 2023-2024 academic year. This year, however, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is delayed until sometime in December. If you’re unsure what these forms are and whether or not to submit them, look no further. All the basic information you will need is right here.

Filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile

Who should submit the CSS Profile and the FAFSA?

Any U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen seeking need-based aid from post-secondary institutions must submit the FAFSA. The first thing to understand about the FAFSA is that it is the student’s form, not the parent’s. Many parents complete it on behalf of their child, and if the student is under 18, the parent will be required to co-sign. But when the questions refer to “you” or “your,” they address the student, not the parent.

Before beginning the FAFSA, the student must initiate the process by creating their Federal Student Aid Identification Number, or FSA ID. It is their electronic signature. Once created, the parent can create their FSA ID if they expect to co-sign the FAFSA or want access. Students or parents who need to create their FSA ID should click here.

Oct 1 is the first date the FAFSA can be filled out. (Designer491/ Shutterstock)


With FSA ID in hand, you can begin the FAFSA here. Before submitting, you can list up to ten colleges on this online form. If the student is applying to more than ten colleges, it is important to know how to do this. Click here to learn how to add more than ten schools to your FAFSA.

What you need to know about the CSS Profile

In addition to the FAFSA, about 150 undergraduate institutions require a second form if you apply for need-based aid: the CSS Profile, owned and operated by the College Board. Your intelligence will be tested as you complete this far more complex and invasive form. You can find the list of schools that require it here. Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is submitted online, listing all the colleges the student is applying to. You can begin the CSS Profile here.

A few institutions require that an applicant wishing to be considered for merit (non-need) aid submit the FAFSA, the Profile, or both. It is best to check on the college website or financial aid office to learn their policy.

What do the CSS Profile and the FAFSA Ask?

The biggest factor in need eligibility is income. These forms will look at the income you reported on your federal tax returns two years before the year your child will enroll in college. So if your child is currently a senior in high school and will be entering college in the fall of 2024, the “base tax year” will be 2022.

These forms also ask about your assets — checking and savings accounts, investments, trust funds, 529 college savings plans, real estate other than your primary residence, and the value of your businesses. The assets you report are those you own when you complete the form, not from the income-reporting year.

Art, jewelry, cars, and retirement accounts are not considered assets in the needs methodologies. But such demographic information as the number of dependent children, state of residence, and age of the older parent are considered in the needs methodologies.

A few days after submitting the FAFSA, the student will receive an email from the Department of Education with a link to their Student Aid Report. A six- or seven-digit number is practically hidden in this one-page report, usually beginning with several zeroes and no dollar sign. It looks more like a serial number than a heartbreakingly large dollar amount. This used to be called your “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC, but will be referred to as the Student Aid Index – SAI – going forward. 

It is the number upon which your child’s financial aid award is determined at schools using the FAFSA. The CSS Profile does not generate such a number, making it more difficult (but not impossible) to begin to estimate what your costs will be at those schools.

What are the differences between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile?

If the student’s parents are divorced or separated, the custodial parent is defined as the parent with whom the student has spent more time during the year to date. Only the custodial parent (and their spouse, if remarried) reports their financial information on the FAFSA. The noncustodial parent is ignored. The Profile, however, asks the student to name biological parents and current stepparents. Most Profile colleges will require the noncustodial parent to complete and submit their Profile. They will use the financial information of biological parents and their spouses to calculate the student’s need.

Home equity is the difference between a home’s current fair market value and the remaining balance on the mortgage. On the FAFSA, equity in the primary home is not a reportable asset, but on the Profile, it is.

The net worth of a family-owned business or farm is defined as the difference between its current fair market value and its total outstanding debt (mortgages, liens, lines of credit, etc.). On the FAFSA, the value of a family-owned business or farm with 100 or fewer employees is not a reportable asset, but on the Profile, it is.

Which form will yield a bigger award?

Because of these and other differences between the FAFSA’s federal methodology and the CSS Profile’s institutional methodology, the student’s calculated need may vary significantly between these two forms. The FAFSA can advantage divorced or separated parents if the custodial parent has a lower income, fewer assets, and has not remarried. The FAFSA can also advantage homeowners because it doesn’t look at home equity in the primary residence, and the Profile can be friendlier to renters for the same reason.

The Profile penalizes assets at a slightly lower rate (5%) than the FAFSA (5.64%). And because of their prestige and large cash reserves, many Profile schools are committed to meeting their students’ full need, or close to the full need, often yielding very generous need-based financial aid awards. Ultimately, the net cost of college will depend on many factors: the student’s demonstrated financial need, the historical generosity of the institution’s financial aid policies, the sticker price of the institution, and the student’s competitiveness in the applicant pool.

What are the deadlines for the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

Institutions have varied financial aid deadlines. These may be the same as the institutional application deadline or very different. For high school seniors applying during the early decision or early action rounds, the financial aid deadline may be as early as November 1, allowing less than a month to complete and submit the forms. The financial aid deadline may be as late as early March for students applying in the regular decision round. Since these forms are typically submitted once online to all the colleges requiring them for financial aid, they must be submitted no later than the earliest deadline of the schools on the student’s list.

It’s necessary that students or their parents consult each college’s website, or call the financial aid office, to verify the required forms and deadlines. Create a spreadsheet or other simple document to keep track. Missing a deadline can seriously jeopardize a student’s eligibility for need-based aid.

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You Might Also be Interested in Reading: 

Top FAFSA and Financial Aid Mistakes to Avoid 

Time for the Dreaded Family Conversation about College Cost 

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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