I write a lot about the FAFSA, but there’s a second financial aid form that’s also important: the CSS Profile. While all schools use the FAFSA to allocate federal funds such as Direct Student Loans, a subset of schools– primarily private schools– use the CSS Profile in their financial aid calculations. There are a few key differences between the two forms:

  • The Profile considers a broader range of assets than does the FAFSA. For many families, the most important ones are home equity (although a number of schools have dropped or limited its importance) and non-parent-owned 529 accounts. Other Profile assets include cash value insurance policies and small businesses. Home equity is based on the Federal Housing Multiplier Index, not Zillow or your own estimates.
  • The Profile includes a mandatory student contribution from income, essentially assuming the student has a part-time or summer job. This typically ranges from $3,000-$6,000.
  • For students whose parents are divorced, the Profile requires both parents to complete it. (The FAFSA only requires the custodial parent to complete it.)
  • The Profile assesses income and assets slightly differently from the FAFSA. Parents are given a wider range of allowances against assets, such as for emergency savings and private school tuition, and assets are assessed slightly lower– 5% vs 5.64%.
  • Colleges can include additional questions of their own. These might include questions about the family’s cars, how students got summer jobs, whether parents receive any financial gifts, and more.
  • The CSS Profile’s calculation is referred to as Institutional Methodology. This is somewhat misleading insofar as institutions have a great deal of latitude in interpreting the data. For example, some cap home equity at a multiple of parent income. Others factor in regional differences in cost of living. The primary requirement is that the institution’s methodology is applied consistently across all students.
  • A small group of schools uses the Profile and FAFSA in what’s called Consensus Methodology. These schools wanted to standardize financial aid calculations between themselves. Key features of CM are that home equity is capped at 1.2x parent income and student assets are assessed the same as parent assets.

One really important difference between the FAFSA and the Profile is that the first F in FAFSA stands for Free. Profile starts with a different letter; you will pay $25 for the first Profile submitted and $16 for each additional school.

Like the FAFSA, the Profile has an EFC estimator. However, given the differences in questions and calculations from school to school, you are better off using individual schools’ net price calculators to get more accurate estimates of your costs.

And remember, although the Profile is commonly considered the FAFSA for private colleges, it’s actually only for a subset of about 200 private colleges. So before putting too much energy into figuring out the Profile, you should start by figuring out if you even need to file it.