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 2.7 billion dollars’ worth of aid that could have easily been obtained had they taken a couple hours to fill out some paperwork. That’s right—countless individuals, due to misassumptions about how financial aid works or sheer intimidation, forgo applying 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, all topics we’ve addressed in our book and past blogs. However, the most important thing you can do is relatively straightforward, and begins with understanding two forms: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

Meet 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 being 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.

Meet the CSS Profile

Often less understood is the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile), an additional form that is required by close to 200 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.

When is the due date?

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. 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.

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 January 1st for those seeking scholarships.

How long will it take to fill out the paperwork?

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 2018 can submit their tax info from 2016, 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 somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour.

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 considered include: checking and savings accounts, value of a second home or commercial property (but not your primary residence), stocks and bonds, and savings in a child’s name (which are counted against your EFC at a much higher rate).

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, and income earned overseas.

To prepare, we recommend having records handy on the following, in addition to basic tax records also required for the FAFSA: family medical costs, retirement accounts, detailed business records (for the self-employed), life insurance policies, mortgage information for calculation of home equity, and any other investment information (stocks, bonds, etc.).

Key Takeaways

  • 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 eligibility to receive state and institutional funding as well.
  • 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!
Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).