Submitting a FAFSA and CSS Profile form may indeed lead to better scholarship chances ... or not. So how will it work for your family? First a primer on a potentially confusing process ...
American citizens — whether living in the U.S. or abroad — are often eligible for "need-based" financial aid, which will come from the federal government and commonly from the colleges themselves as well. If your family's income and assets make your son eligible for need-based aid, then you should definitely complete the FAFSA and also the CSS Profile for his target colleges that require it.
If you're not sure if you qualify for need-based aid, you can get a ballpark sense by completing an online EFC (Expected Family Contribution) calculator, such as this one offered by the College Board. As you proceed through the questions, you'll be asked to "Pick a Formula" and will have the choice of selecting "Federal Methodology" (FM) or "Institutional Methodology" (IM). You should choose the third option ... "Both."
This free tool is designed to tell you how much you should — in a perfect world — pay for your son's college education. The FM will provide a rough idea of your Expected Family Contribution at colleges that require only the FAFSA. The IM will give you an approximate idea for those that expect the Profile, too. Your FM and IM figures may be similar or quite different. That's because the IM colleges typically solicit more detailed information (about divorced parents, stepparents, siblings' educational costs, home value, etc.) than the FM colleges do. This is why I recommend checking that "Both" box.
If your EFC comes out lower than the total Cost of Attendance (that's tuition, fees, room & board, etc.) at a college that your son is considering, it means your family has "financial need" and will qualify for need-based aid there, although this doesn't guarantee that you'll get it. Some colleges promise to meet each student's full need, but most don't. And even the ones that do meet full need may meet part if it with loans (that must be repaid) and not with grants (which don't). Depending on your household income and assets, it's possible that you may qualify for need-based aid at the most expensive colleges on your son's list, but not at all of them.
You can also play around with the "Net Price Calculator" at each of his target schools. The NPC is similar to the EFC calculator described above, but is specifically tailored to the college that provides it. All colleges are required to post an NPC online, so you can find the ones you're seeking on college financial aid web pages or via a quick Google search.
If you think your son will qualify for need-based aid at one or more of his target colleges, then submitting the necessary financial aid forms is imperative. If, however, you're convinced that your family will NOT qualify for need-based aid, then the decision is murkier. Often, financial aid experts advise ALL families to submit the FAFSA, even if they know that there's no way they'll get need-based aid. But many parents ask, "In that case, why bother?"
Probably the best reason for even well-off parents to complete the FAFSA is that it's required for federal student loans. Some families who can easily afford college still prefer to cover some college costs with loans. In addition, if a student does not submit a FAFSA when applying for freshman year, colleges may impose a waiting period (typically two years) if the family circumstances change and the student asks for aid.
On the other hand, these forms can be tedious to tackle and are very rarely required for "merit aid." Merit aid is the money that colleges use to lure top prospects to enroll, even when the student has no financial need. Merit grants range from a couple thousand dollars a year up to a four-year ride. If your family won't qualify for need-based aid, your son should read websites carefully to see if any of his target colleges won't give merit grants to students who have not sent a FAFSA, but that's unlikely to be the case.
So when you ask if a FAFSA and CSS Profile can mean "better scholarship chances," the answer is a resounding "YES!" for those who qualify for need-based aid, but it's a far lamer, "It depends" or "Probably not" for those who don't.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.