Three of M's seven schools required us to fill out the CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE from the College Board. All of them required the FAFSA in order to get financial aid. Which schools required the CSS? - the top schools, the most competitive schools. One of them required the CSS with the application, which was due on January 1st. Once we met that deadline, it was no problem to fill out the FAFSA with an estimate of our 2014 taxes (based on our W2s). I will need to re-do the FAFSA once our 2014 taxes are completed.
Because I filled out both, I can compare the two. First of all, the FAFSA is free. The F and A stand for Free Application (for financial student aid.) The FAFSA is less comprehensive, and therefore easier to fill out. Financially, we are fairly uncomplicated, we don't own our businesses or real estate beyond our home. We don't receive (or pay) child support or other forms of untaxed income. We have jobs, we have pensions and 401Ks, we have a house that we are making payments on.
To fill out the FAFSA we needed our social security numbers (student and parent(s)), our last federal taxes (2013), our last paystubs for 2014 (because W-2s aren't available yet), and cash, savings and checking account balances. The questions basically amounted to some demographics, how much did you earn, how much do you pay in income taxes, and how much cash do you have on hand (savings, checking, cash). I was told that the FAFSA takes about 20 - 25 minutes to fill out. That seems about right.
The CSS on the other hand was $9 per submission and $16 per school, so $57 total for the three schools. The CSS also required everything that the FAFSA required PLUS the amounts of our retirement accounts and the value and amount owed on our home. They also required much greater details from last year's taxes. It took us about 3 hours to gather the require information and fill out the on-line forms.
It was so fine grained and complicated I felt like I needed a CPA to fill the thing out. And then I made an error on the CSS. The form asked for "extra Medicare deductions" and wondered what they meant by "extra." I clicked on their "help" feature, but nothing popped up, so I typed in the amounts deducted from our pay for Medicare. After I submitted, I closed out of the browser and found the pop-up window that explained the "extra" amount was for people who earned more that $200,000 annually. I immediately e-mailed the College Board, to ask what to do. I didn't want to re-file and pay another $57. The next business day they sent me a long response that made my eyes glaze over, but it included something about contacting the financial aid offices at the schools. That is what I did. I told them the item that I had entered $2000 for and that the correct number was $0. So far 2 of the 3 schools have told me that they have made the correction on their end, and the 3rd said that the will be out of the office until January 5th. So it seems like the schools are understanding and supportive.
On the topic of complicated forms, a local reporter who has covered issues related to the FAFSA for the last few years, told me that some in Congress are looking to reduce the FAFSA to how much did you earn, and how many kids do you have in college. That would mean people with wealth - but no income - would be eligible for the same aid as homeless and unemployed families. I didn't find the FAFSA difficult enough to be a problem in need of fixing.