Financial Aid and CSS Profile Information

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Financial Aid

By Cindy Pendergast

An often heard saying in higher education is that financing a college education is like a three-legged stool: the family, the college, and the federal government. It is important to keep in mind the order in which the three legs are listed. Although much is written about the vast amount of monies available in the way of institutional aid and independent scholarships, the responsibility of the student and family to contribute to the cost of attending college to the best of their ability is still tantamount. 

How do colleges determine a family's EFC (Expected Family Contribution) or how much a family should be able to contribute? The student and parents must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and submit it with accompanying documents. In addition, many private colleges require a second form called the CSS Profile. The student must also carefully read the instructions for each college as some will require institution-specific questions.

Once the EFC has been determined, the college will subtract this amount from the total cost to attend the college and thereby result in the amount of aid the student will need in order to cover the cost of attending the college. 


Total Cost to Attend (room, board, tuition, books, etc.)

      —   EFC


      =   Amount of Aid Needed

Financial aid is awarded in a package that has three basic components: grants, loans, and campus work/study. Grants are awards that are not paid back; loans are usually government-backed at lower interest rates and must be repaid; and work/study is a program that offers qualifying students jobs on campus that pay the student a monthly salary. This is a government-backed program also. It is important to note that colleges do not always meet the full demonstrated financial need of the student. For example, a student may need $15,000 to meet his financial need as determined by the formula above and receive a package from the college that fails to meet this need. This is called gapping. A package can also contain a small grant and approve a large amount in the form of loans. Families should always seek the counsel of the college counselor to discuss situations like this. As it can be difficult to compare packages and arrive at the bottom line of out-of-pocket cost, taking into account the amount of money that will have to be paid back (loans), it is always recommended that a family use available charts that can list the packages side-by-side to interpret the data and arrive at the best package.


To avoid unpleasant surprises after the college acceptances arrive, only to be followed by information from the Financial Aid Offices, all families should use the Net Price Calculator that every college and university has on its respective website. This tool allows families to answer a set of questions to estimate the cost of college attendance based on their family's financials. The questions vary from college to college and are not intended to result in a definitive amount, but they will help provide an approximate picture. Families can also use the FAFSA4Caster which is also found online. 

It is never too early for a family to begin thinking about financing higher education. Just remember the three-legged stool.

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Keep in Mind

  • Students must check the financial aid section for each college they are applying (each school has different requirements, some may want CSS Profile, many will have their own short form with additional questions)

  • Be sure to avoid “fake” FAFSA page. Only use this link to access FAFSA information

  • Use this website to access your CSS Profile

  • The FAFSA can be filled out online or you can obtain a paper copy. You can file any time after October 1st. The CSS Profile can only be filed on online; it should be completed by the earliest admissions deadline of the student.

Information Needed to Fill Out the FAFSA and CSS Profile

To complete these applications, you will need the following documents (for the graduating class of 2021):

  • W-2 Forms and other records of money earned for the prior year

  • Federal Income Tax Return from 2019 (MUST be from 2 years prior)* - IRS Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia or Palau

  • Untaxed income records* - Social Security, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, welfare, or veterans benefits records

  • Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments

  • Current bank statements

  • Current mortgage information

  • Your most recent business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stock, bond, and other investment records

  • Parent/Guardian and student social security numbers.

  • Student’s driver license number, if they have one.

Resources for Information and Completion of FAFSA Application and CSS Profile

CSS Profile Help


  • Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) (for Live Chat, Phone Call, or Email)

  • Local resources/free services that help with FAFSA (visit your town library and look into other community organizations that offer free assistance)