The Most Important Day Of The Year For College Students

Today is the earliest you can file the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS Profile for the 2021-22 academic year. The pool of funds available for financial aid is limited, and many colleges and universities rely on application data to determine who gets a share of the money. The result is that students are awarded on a first-come, first served basis.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things regarding student loan repayment, but the financial aid application process has been largely unaffected. This is a good thing, because it’s critical to file as soon as possible, even if you haven’t done so in the past.

The Difference Between The FAFSA And CSS Profile

There are two similar but separate applications required for financial aid, though additional forms are likely to be required by the institution a student ultimately attends.

  • The FAFSA is the application for federal student aid. This includes money from federal grants like the Pell grant, scholarships, work-study programs, and federally subsidized loans. Almost every state and school requires the FAFSA for students seeking financial assistance.
  • The CSS Profile is administered by the College Board, a non-profit that represents thousands of educational organizations. The CSS Profile is used by the institutions to determine non-federal aid awards and is more comprehensive and less forgiving than the FAFSA, including assets and income excluded on the FAFSA like home equity and annuities.

If you are seeking financial aid you will need to complete the FAFSA, but you only need to complete the CSS Profile if it is required by one of the schools to which you or your student is applying or attending. If this applies to you or your family, consider applying at the same time for both, as there is a lot of overlap in the information required.

Everyone Should Complete The FAFSA

The most recent data from Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays For College” showed that only 71% of families submitted a FAFSA for the 2019-20 academic year. The most common reason families don’t file is because they believe they will not qualify for aid.

But most families do qualify. Among families earning over $100,000 or more each year, 68.6% qualified for some form of financial aid, and over 55% qualified for grants (which do not need to be repaid) according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The second reason families don’t file? They missed the deadline. You can file for the following school year anytime between October 1st of the preceding year and June 30th of the same year.

The FAFSA is free, so the only real cost is the time it takes to complete. You can get a quick estimate using FAFSA Forecaster ( to see for how much you might qualify.

Who Can Apply

In order to apply for financial aid you must meet three basic eligibility requirements:

  • Have a financial need (almost everyone)
  • Be a U.S. citizen or “eligible noncitizen”
  • Be enrolled or enrolling in a qualifying degree or certificate program

There are more detailed eligibility requirements available from the U.S. Department of Education.

What You Need

The government will need a lot of information to grant your request for financial aid, but it should be no more arduous than completing your taxes. Gather the following information when applying:

  • Personal identification data, such as your social security number, driver’s license, etc. for the parent(s) and the dependent student. If the student is independent, no parental information is necessary.
  • Your prior year tax return and W-2. For those filing for the 2021-22 academic year you will use your 2019 return. A lot of this information may be automatically populated while filling out the FAFSA online, but having your return will make life easier.
  • Account statements for all investment assets and bank statements, such as stocks, bonds, business assets, etc.
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support and interest income.
  • Colleges. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going to apply, the FAFSA must have at least one college listed to be processed. There is no obligation to apply to or attend the school, and you can add schools later. If you’re not sure what to list, pick an in-state college, as it will likely be required for state aid, anyway.

How To File

The application requires a lot of information, but the process is relatively straightforward:

  1. First, apply for an FSA ID if you do not already have one. Note that the parent and student should each have separate FSA IDs: Do not get these confused.
  2. Begin the application process at Click “Start Here” and follow the instructions. There is also a link to a paper application if you prefer to complete it and submit it by mail, though it extends the process.

There is a dedicated page for help in filling out the FAFSA if you need it, and there is a PDF of a document called, “Completing the FAFSA® Form” for question-by-question guidance. If you really need help, you can also call 800-4FED-AID.

What Happens After Filing The FAFSA

After all the information is submitted the application is reviewed and a determination is made in 7 – 10 business days. You and any schools you may have elected will receive a report called an SAR (Student Aid Report) with all the data entered on the FAFSA by email or mail. You need to review this document carefully in the event that there are errors and, if so, correct them immediately. If you do not receive the SAR in a timely manner, contact the Department of Education at 800-4-FED-AID.

The SAR will also list the EFC (Expected Family Contribution). The cost of attendance minus your EFC equals your financial need. This is the amount used by the school to determine the amount of aid for which you qualify. The remaining process occurs through the respective financial aid office of the college(s).

Filing The CSS Profile

You can check to see if your school requires the CSS Profile on the list provided by the College Board. If required, note that the CSS Profile is more thorough than the FAFSA, so budget a couple hours, at least. Some important points:

  • The College Board provides a calculator to help estimate its own EFC (Expected Family Contribution). Do not get the EFC confused with the one calculated for the FAFSA: While they use the term interchangeably, the FAFSA EFC and CSS Profile EFC will usually be different numbers.
  • Divorced parent income may be included on the CSS Profile.
  • The CSS Profile may have questions unique to participating schools.
  • The application fee may be waived for families below certain income thresholds.

Before filing anything note that the CSS Profile requires the same documentation as the FAFSA to complete, plus mortgage information. For those filing for the 2020-21 academic year, this means that you will need your 2018 tax return and current year documentation for all supporting sources such as bank statements. So if you’ve filed the FAFSA already then you already have most of the information you need. Then, to actually submit the CSS Profile:

  1. Create An Account with The College Board
  2. Select Your Schools – You will need to select the school(s) to which the CSS Profile will be submitted.
  3. Complete the required online forms

The CSS Profile is straightforward, but detailed. There is a tour of the CSS profile and a PDF guide, but even then there can be some confusing sections if you have complex finances or a unique family situation. In these cases, you can contact the financial aid office of the school to which you will be submitting the CSS Profile, check the CSS Profile FAQ, or contact the College Board’s CSS Profile support line at 844-202-0524 (current hours at 9:AM – 6:PM EST Mon – Fri).

What About Scholarships And Other Assistance?

The financial aid process, including private scholarships, grants, loans and other assistance, can be quite extensive. If this is the first time you are looking at the financial aid process there is extensive help available:

On a final note: Watch out for scams. Especially during COVID-19, there are a lot of deceitful individuals and organizations scam students and their families. For example, a popular scam is offering a scholarship that requires an application fee when there is no scholarship. So be mindful of using reputable web sites, such as those using the .gov domain name, and cross-checking recommendations with multiple parties.

This information does not constitute tax advice and is provided for informational purposes only. Please consult your tax advisor, financial advisor, local taxing authority, and/or plan provider or sponsor for more information.

Brian Boswell is a registered representative of and offers securities through MML Investors Services, LLC. Member SIPC., 101 Federal St, Suite 800, Boston, MA 02110. Tel: 617-439-4389. CRN202209-271204.

You should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the underlying investments before investing. This and other information can be found in the offering statement, which can be obtained from your investment representative. Please read it carefully before you invest or send money.

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