If you are the parent of a college-bound teen, you’ve likely spent at least a few sleepless nights fretting about the above question. If it is any comfort, you are far from alone. Every single year, college students in the U.S. miss over 2.6 billion dollars’ worth of aid that could have easily been obtained had they taken an hour to fill out a bit of paperwork. That’s right—countless individuals (as high as 37% of all college-bound students), due to misassumptions about how financial aid works or sheer intimidation, forgo submitting a FAFSA altogether.

Becoming a master of the financial aid game isn’t easy. It requires a smart-consumer mindset, a nuanced understanding of your child’s value in the higher education marketplace, as well as a fair amount of research. However, the most important thing you can do is relatively straightforward, and begins with familiarizing yourself with two forms: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Toward the aim of demystifying these two critically important documents, we will address the following:

  • An introduction to the FAFSA
  • An introduction to the CSS Profile
  • FAFSA and CSS Profile Federal, State, and College Deadlines
  • How long will it take to fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile?
  • How does the FAFSA determine eligibility?
  • How does the CSS determine eligibility?
  • Changes to the FAFSA for 2021-22
  • Changes to the FAFSA for 2023-24
  • Key Financial Aid Takeaways

We begin by cordially introducing you to your new best friend, who might just help you unearth tens of thousands of dollars of tuition money—the FAFSA.

Introduction to the FAFSA

Filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the most important step in financing a college education. Using a strict formula, the federal government uses the FAFSA application to award Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans, and Federal Work-Study jobs to families that present a financial need. Yet the scope of the FAFSA goes beyond the procurement of federal aid; it is also used by states as well as college and universities to determine need-based eligibility. Submitting a FAFSA form is absolutely free and every single college-bound senior should submit one.

Introduction to the CSS Profile

Often less understood is the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile), an additional form that is required by over 400 undergraduate institutions, including many of the most highly-selective schools in the country. Applicants seeking private, institutional-based funding from CSS member schools, must endure a more thorough examination of their family’s financial assets and financial standing.

Unlike the FAFSA, you actually have to pay for each CSS Profile submission. Your first Profile can be sent for $25 — each subsequent submission will cost you $16. Yet, this is a small price to pay when considered against the substantial aid it can help to secure.

FAFSA and CSS Profile Due Dates

Both the FAFSA and CSS Profile are available beginning October 1st of each year and, while you technically have until June 30th to get this completed, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by procrastinating. We advise families to submit the FAFSA as early as possible, as research has consistently demonstrated that students who submit their FAFSA earlier fare far better financially than those who wait.

State Deadlines

It’s essential to understand that the FAFSA isn’t solely used to procure federal funds like Pell Grants or Perkins Loans but also for determining eligibility for state funds. Certain states, including North Carolina, Vermont, and Illinois, have first-come, first-served policies, meaning that those who apply closer to October 1st will get first dibs on the finite amount of available scholarship money allocated by their home state. Many other states, even those who are not first-come, first-served, still possess much earlier deadlines than the June 30th federal deadline. For a complete list of state deadlines, click here.

College Deadlines

Additionally, eligibility for institutional need-based aid, granted by the colleges themselves, is also determined through the FAFSA or CSS Profile. Colleges and universities set their own “priority deadlines” for consideration that are typically much earlier than the federal deadline. By submitting your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile early, you have a better chance at netting generous aid offers from prospective colleges and, of equal importance, you and your teen will have ample time to comparison shop before you commit to an undergraduate institution.

Priority deadlines set by individual colleges vary greatly, and those applying Early Decision will typically be required to submit financial aid paperwork extremely early. For example, Duke University sets their priority deadline at February 1st for regular applicants and November 15th for those applying early. Purdue University has a later deadline of March 1st but has an earlier deadline of November 1st for those seeking “maximum scholarship consideration” as well as consideration for university-wide merit scholarships.

See our Dataverse for a complete list of school-specific financial aid deadlines.

How long will it take to fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile?

FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA has never been quicker and more painless. Under the newly-revamped system, parents can provide tax information from two years prior to when their student is slated to start college. For example, parents with teens starting college in fall of 2022 can submit their tax info from 2020, which greatly simplifies the process.

You can further streamline things by utilizing the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically plug in your essential info. Since this comes directly from the IRS it doesn’t need to be verified or double-checked, thus you won’t have to waste time submitting hard copies of your tax returns to prospective colleges. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that filling out the form online will take you an average of 55 minutes to complete.

CSS Profile

The CSS Profile can take a bit longer as it is a longer form that digs deeper into your financials (more on that in a moment). If you are self-employed and/or hold a variety of complex assets, extra time will be necessary.

How does the FAFSA determine eligibility?

The Federal Methodology involves looking at your tax records to determine an Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the amount of tuition that a family should be expected to pay based on their income and certain assets.

Assets that ARE considered include:

  • Money in checking and savings accounts
  • Value of a second home or commercial property
  • Stocks, bonds, securities, mutual funds, etc.
  • Money in 529 Savings Accounts
  • Any other savings in a child’s name (which are counted against your EFC at a much higher rate).

Items that are NOT included in the calculation based on the FAFSA include:

  • Retirement plans (401k, IRA, pension, etc.)
  • Life insurance
  • Your primary residence

How does the CSS determine eligibility?

The exact eligibility requirements differ by institution but, in general, all of the assets looked at by the FAFSA are also included when CSS member schools are determining a family’s EFC. In addition, the following assets which are not factored in by the FAFSA are typically factored in by the CSS Profile:

  • The amount of home equity in your primary residence
  • Retirement accounts
  • Non-custodial parent financials
  • The value of a family-owned small business

To prepare, we recommend having records handy on the following, in addition to basic tax records also required for the FAFSA:

  • Retirement accounts
  • Detailed business records (for the self-employed)
  • Life insurance policies
  • Mortgage information for calculation of home equity
  • Any other investment information (stocks, bonds, etc.)
  • Family medical costs

What’s new to the FAFSA for 2021-22?

A number of minor changes were made to the form this year. These included:

  • The income threshold for receiving an automatic zero for your EFC is now $27,000 (up $1,000 from the previous year).
  • Beginning this year, the IRS Retrieval Tool will automatically transfer information as to whether you filed a Schedule 1. This is the form used to outline items like capital gains, gambling winnings, or alimony payments.
  • The “Help” section of the FAFSA is much improved with images of the forms and relevant line numbers highlighted.

Changes to the FAFSA in 2022 (for 2023-24)

Late in 2021, Congress passed a series of financial aid policy updates that will have a significant impact on the FAFSA process beginning when the form goes live in 2022 (on October 1st). Here are some highlights of the major changes we can anticipate:

  • The form with be shortened from 108 questions to a mere 36.
  • Students no longer have to answer whether or not they have any drug-related convictions.
  • “Expected Family Contribution” is being renamed the “Student Aid Index”. Part of the name change is make clearer that an “EFC” is not a guaranteed amount but rather an indicator of financial need that can then be considered by individual institutions.
  • An SAI will actually be able to be a negative number, which would better highlight families with the greatest level of need.
  • Pell Grant eligibility receives a cost-of-increase, but more importantly, a student’s family size and adjusted gross income will now be compared to federal poverty guidelines, a move that make an estimated 500,000 more students in the U.S. eligible.
  • Presently, for divorced/separated parents, the EFC is based off of the custodial parent’s finances. This will change to whichever parent is the higher income earner starting in 2023-24.

Key Financial Aid Takeaways

Of course, there are plenty of details, nuance, and fine-print information that you need to grasp in order to maximize your financial aid opportunities. But in terms of big-picture takeaways, the College Transitions’ team suggests the following:

  • Whether you’re a millionaire or living paycheck-to-paycheck, fill out a FAFSA.
  • If one or more of your prospective colleges requires the CSS Profile, submit those accordingly.
  • Remember that a FAFSA isn’t just for Federal Aid, but also is need for eligibility to receive state and institutional funding.
  • Pay close attention to state-set and school-specific deadlines for FAFSA and CSS Profile submission.
  • Studies have shown that those who apply earlier obtain significantly more aid than those who wait. The window opens October 1st—don’t procrastinate!