Professor in a classroom with her students

Money can be a huge factor when it comes to deciding whether or not to attend college. For many people the cost is simply too high – especially with rising tuition rates. However, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and College Scholarship Service (CSS) are two acronyms you need to know if you’re looking to start or return to school. These programs help you find financial aid and scholarships to make furthering your education possible.

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA is a service for all US citizens that helps prospective students find answers about eligibility for financial aid. It can help families find grants, loans, and work-studies to ease the financial burden. FAFSA is hosted by the US Department of Education and is a huge part of the distribution of federal student aid, which totals $150 billion per year.

FAFSA can be filled out entirely online and completed in just a few minutes’ time. Students should have personal information ready, as the form requires data about family financial standings, marital status, GPA, and more.

When is FAFSA Due?

FAFSA should be filled out as early as possible during your senior year of high school, although it may be easier to wait until your family has completed tax returns and can verify exact income. You may find out whether you’re eligible very quickly. FAFSA will usually tell you instantly, for example, if you’re eligible for the Pell Grant (a common federal grant)

If you’re not sure how to transfer tax information into your FAFSA, there’s a great info graphic provided below from with a step-by-step explanation.


What is the CSS Profile?

Whereas loans and grants are dependent upon your financial situation, scholarship eligibility is determined by other factors. In most cases, these factors involve academic or athletic performance, although they can also be awarded for ethnicity, essays, and beyond.

The problem with scholarships is finding them. There are thousands and thousands of options available and no single web search can provide clear results. This is where the CSS Profile comes in. This service takes a closer look at finances and other factors surrounding a prospective student. The tool gathers information about you and your eligibilities and then sends that data to the schools you select, helping you match to the right universities.

The formal name for the CSS Profile is the College Scholarship Service/Financial Aid PROFILE.  The application reaches hundreds of accredited colleges and universities. The CSS Profile, however, is not free like the FAFSA. It costs a small, variable fee depending on the year and the number of colleges you wish to send your information. Some schools, like Harvard, require the CSS Profile.

When is the CSS Profile Due?

The CSS Profile is due much earlier than the FAFSA. Many schools require you to submit your profile on November 15th of the year before you plan to attend, although some universities and colleges will accept them through February 1st the following year.

Our Financial Aid Recommendations

We recommend filling out both the FAFSA and CSS Profile whenever possible. The more effort you put into finding financial aid, the more likely it is that you’ll find the right opportunities and aid sources to further your education. A few extra hours can save you several thousand dollars in the long run.

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