differences between fafsa and css

A college education is one of the most valuable investments you can make. However, the cost of getting the necessary education is often a limiting factor for many students. The average cost of tuition for the 2017-2018 school year was $34,710 for private colleges, $9,970 for in-state public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents for public colleges.

The potential cost of a college education makes the process of searching for and qualifying for financial aid one of the most important factors in preparing for your college education. There are two very important tools for qualifying for financial aid: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile.


Weighing Financial Need

what is fafsaMany financial aid programs take the economic needs of the student into account deciding on what aid package the student may qualify for. Both weigh the expected financial contribution the student’s family may make. However, the FAFSA and the CSS measure financial need slightly differently.

Since 2015, the FAFSA has looked at what is called the prior year – that is, the form considers the family’s 2016 income for the 2017-2018 school year. This turns out to be a fairly accurate way of measuring expected contribution for low income families whose income remains generally stable from year to year.

The CSS, however, measures the prior year and the current year’s expected income. For the 2017-2018 school year this would be the 2016 earnings and the expected 2017 earnings. This allows the CSS to see not just a snapshot of a family’s income, but to also foresee any expected variations from year to year to fairly judge a student’s financial needs.

The CSS considers many income factors excluded by the FAFSA, as well. The CSS requires accounting for income from small businesses owned by the family. CSS also looks at your primary residence’s home equity and the value of nonqualified annuities.

The FAFSA considers gifts from relatives as assets, which do not weigh as much against financial aid considerations as income. The CSS treats such gifts as income.

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS also notes financial income of noncustodial parents where the parents are divorced or separated.


Cost of Application

Not only is the FAFSA the most widely used form for determining financial aid, it is also free for students. A few schools rely exclusively on the CSS for determining financial aid, and some schools will accept both the FAFSA and CSS.

The cost for applying with CSS is $25 for the first school and $16 for each school thereafter. If the student is a U.S. resident applying to a school for the first time, they may be eligible to have the fee waived. The criteria for having the fee waived is determined based on the information in the CSS.


Planning Is Key

Knowing which financial aid forms the schools you will be applying to accept plays a key role in determining how to manage assets prior to filling out the FAFSA or CSS. The sooner you begin to plan for financial aid considerations, the more you improve your odds of receiving needed assistance and scholarships.


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