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 number key differences between the two forms:

  • The FAFSA has renamed the number it calculates as the Student Aid Index, while the Profile (as of this writing) continues to refer to it as the Expected Family Contribution.
  • The Profile considers a broader range of data than does the FAFSA. For many families, the most important differences in assets are home equity (although a number of schools have dropped or limited its importance) and all 529 accounts for which the student is the beneficiary, regardless of whether they are owned by the student’s parent. The Profile also considers cash value of insurance and non-qualified annuity products. Home equity is based on the Federal Housing Multiplier Index, not Zillow or your own estimates.
  • The Profile uses total income from all sources— tax returns and W-2s— whereas the FAFSA now only uses tax return income. That means that on the Profile, you add back pre-tax contributions to 401ks, 403bs, 457s and other employer retirement contributions to your income, whereas those contributions reduce income on the FAFSA. Since both forms subtract federal tax liability from income, this creates a situation where a 401k contribution reduces SAI on the FAFSA but increases EFC on the Profile.
  • The Profile continues to divide EFC between the number of college students in the household; the FAFSA no longer does so. Note that colleges using the FAFSA can choose to consider siblings in college when allocating institutional funds, but federal need-based programs including Pell grants, work-study and subsidized loans will no longer do so.
  • 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, although some schools that use the Profile only use one parent’s data. (The FAFSA only requires one 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 FAFSA’s calculation is referred to as Federal Methodology. The FAFSA has one formula for calculating SAI; every school using the FAFSA gets the same SAI number for the student.
  • 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 or exclude it entirely. Others factor in regional differences in cost of living. The primary requirement is that the institution’s methodology is applied consistently across all students. So a student’s EFC can differ from school to school.
  • A small group of schools uses 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.

Prior to the FAFSA for the 2024-25 school year (which becomes available in Dec., 2023), most students had a higher EFC on the Profile than on the FAFSA. With this year’s FAFSA Simplification changes, that might no longer be the case for many families, particularly those with multiple children. However, subtracting retirement plan contributions and some of the other formula adjustments on the FAFSA will in many cases result in a lower SAI.

Normally,

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’s Student Aid Estimator, the Profile has an EFC estimator. However, given the differences in questions and calculations from school to school, you should take the Profile’s EFC estimator with a grain of salt.

And remember, although the Profile is commonly considered the FAFSA for private colleges, it’s actually only for a subset of about 250 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. Colleges that use the Profile require the FAFSA in addition, since the FAFSA is the application for federal aid programs including student loans, work-study and Pell grants.

Most important of all: the Student Aid Estimator and EFC Estimator only tell you if you are eligible for need-based aid. Neither the FAFSA nor the CSS Profile guarantees that your any college will provide scholarships to meet your need. Every college has a net price calculator, though, and using it will give you a better sense of the financial aid package you’re likely to get than will an estimator.