The FAFSA isn’t the only financial aid form; many students and families also need to complete the CSS Profile. The Profile is used by about 400 mostly private colleges and universities. There are a few key differences between the FAFSA and the Profile, and most families will find that the Profile calculates a higher EFC than does the FAFSA.

The CSS Profile includes a broader range of assets than does the FAFSA. In addition to the student’s and parents’ taxable assets and 529 accounts, the CSS Profile requires students and families to report:

  • The value of their home equity
  • Cash value of nonqualified annuities and whole life insurance policies
  • 529 accounts owned by by persons other than the parents for which the student is the beneficiary
  • Small business value, including businesses that aren’t reported on the FAFSA
  • In most cases, income and assets from the noncustodial parent if the student’s parents are divorced

Unlike the FAFSA, which has a single, uniform formula for calculating EFC, the CSS Profile allows schools some latitude in calculating EFC. This can lead to substantially different EFCs at different schools. For example, some schools exclude home equity entirely from their calculation, others cap it at a multiple of income such as 2x, and others use the full value in calculating EFC. (If you’re wondering, the Profile uses the Federal House Price Index to calculate home value, rather than market rates. This incorporates factors including when the parents purchased and local price appreciation.)

Similarly, while most Profile colleges require both parents to report income and assets if parents are divorced, not all do. This list details whether noncustodial parents need to file.

In addition, colleges can add supplemental questions to the Profile. These can be anything from what cars the family drives and whether they’re owned or leased to questions about intended major or career goals in order to match students to specific scholarships.

One benefit for families whose circumstances have changed due to the pandemic: the Profile asks parents to project 2021 income and includes fields to explain any changes to their financial circumstances in the past year, along with a checkbox to indicate whether they’ve been impacted by COVID. The Profile also captures information about a family’s financial obligations including mortgage payment, tuition expenses for siblings, healthcare expenses, support for other family members and more.

The Profile’s formula is nominally different from the FAFSA’s. For example, parent assets are assessed at a flat 5% vs 5.64% in the FAFSA. Which is great, unless you have a couple hundred thousand dollars of home equity counting in the formula. The Profile also gives allowances for some of the family’s actual expenses rather than simply giving an income protection allowance based on family size.

The Profile also costs money: $25 for the first submission and $16 for each additional one. It’s worth double-checking directly with each college whether they do in fact require the Profile. Many colleges will accept the FAFSA with some additional documentation in lieu of the Profile, even if they’re listed as Profile schools.

Students who are applying to Profile schools and are concerned about costs based on a higher EFC might look for competitive FAFSA-only schools to apply to. Should the FAFSA school offer more aid, that financial aid award might help the student in appealing the award at their top-choice college.

And remember, the Profile is submitted in addition to the FAFSA, not instead of it.