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Twelve Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA, CSS Profile

The main financial aid forms are available Oct. 1. Parents with college-bound kids shouldn’t wait to fill them out.

Any student who hopes to qualify for financial aid must complete at least one financial aid application. And now is the time to tackle this crucial chore.

Parents, whose children will be returning to college or will be freshmen in the fall of 2019, should also be completing the aid documents now.

Here are 12 things you and your clients should know about these all-important applications:

1. The nation’s most popular financial aid application is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which roughly 20 million applicants complete annually. Parents can find this federal application on the U.S. Department of Education website called FAFSA on the Web.  

Students who hope to obtain federal and state grants must file the FAFSA. Families who intend to borrow through federal student and/or parent loans also must complete the FAFSA. In addition, filing this document is a requirement for any student hoping to obtain a campus work-study job.

Nearly all public universities and many private colleges also require the FAFSA to determine who will qualify for their own in-house aid money.

2. The CSS Profile is a secondary application that roughly 200 private colleges and a handful of public universities require applicants to complete. The purpose of the Profile, created by the College Board, is to help colleges determine who will qualify for their own institutional aid.

Schools use the Profile because they don’t believe the FAFSA does a good enough job assessing who should qualify for institutional grants.

The Profile takes a deeper dive into a family’s finances by asking more questions than the FAFSA. For instance, the Profile inquires about the value of a family’s primary home, but the FAFSA doesn’t. Most Profile schools care about the assets and income of the noncustodial parent in cases of divorce and separation, but the FASFA doesn’t inquire at all.

3. Parents will sometimes wonder why they would have to file the FAFSA if schools on their child’s list require the Profile. Schools using the Profile will still depend on the FAFSA to determine which of their applicants will qualify for state and/or federal aid.

4. It’s easy to locate which schools require the Profile. On the CSS Profile page, you’ll find a link to the list of Profile institutions. Families who have questions about the Profile can call (844) 202-0524.

5. Schools that use the Profile can customize the aid application in endless ways through the use of hundreds of supplemental questions. How these institutions treat the answers can differ significantly.

6. If parents haven’t already filed the FAFSA and the Profile, if applicable, they shouldn’t wait. Both applications are available each year beginning on Oct. 1. This means parents can file for financial aid nearly a year before their children start the school year. Both aid applications require the past year tax return, so seeking aid for the 2019-2020 school year, applicants would use the 2017 tax returns. 

7. If parents’ financial situation has changed for the worst since they filed their 2-year-old tax return, they can ask for a professional judgment from a school. College financial aid administrators have the power to adjust a student’s aid amount based on information that isn’t reflected in the aid application. During the professional judgment process, a school’s aid administrator can compare income declared on the relevant tax return with estimated income during the award year.

8. Parents have asked me if they can use the most recent tax return instead of a 2-year-old one when filing the FAFSA and the Profile. The answer is no.

9. The Profile will also ask parents to project what their income will be in the next 2 years. It is best for parents to be conservative in those estimates. Meanwhile, parents who are self-employed should estimate their future income after subtracting their likely business expenses.

10. While both financial aid applications require the reporting of 2-year-old tax returns, the FAFSA and Profile are only interested in the current value of assets from the student and their parents. Consequently, it can make sense for parents to file the aid applications during a period of down days on Wall Street and after major monthly bills have been paid.

11.  As the name suggests, the FAFSA is free. Families, however, will have to pay to complete the Profile and send the report to each school on the child’s list. The College Board charges $25 to complete the application and will send the first school report. All other school reports will cost $16 a piece.

Waivers exist for up to eight school reports for low-income students.

12. You can obtain a preview of the questions on the FAFSA by checking out the latest available FAFSA worksheet.

A comparable worksheet for the Profile doesn’t exist because, as I mentioned earlier, schools can customize the Profile by adding lots of supplemental questions. However, parents can answer some introductory questions on the Profile, including the schools on the student’s list, which will generate the customized Profile for a family. A parent can then print out the application.

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