Applying to college is an exercise in paperwork: recommendations, essays, the application itself, and the FAFSA — the form that determines whether your student is eligible for federal financial aid.
But there’s another financial aid form you may also need to fill out: the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile.
What is the CSS Profile?
A product of the testing giant the College Board (which runs the SATs), the CSS Profile is the application required to access institutional aid, including grants and scholarships, from about 230 colleges. Each year, the profile gives access to more than $9 billion in financial aid to thousands of students, according to the College Board.
How is it different from the FAFSA?
The CSS Profile looks at every part of a family’s finance that the FAFSA (officially named the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) considers: income, bank accounts (and any interest they earn), stocks, bonds, mutual fund shares, investment and vacation property, 529 plans, and any UTMA or UGMA accounts that benefit the student.
But the CSS Profile goes further than the FAFSA. It also considers the value of a family’s primary residence, if it owns one, retirement savings and any annuities. In addition to taking a deeper, more detailed look at your family’s finances than the FAFSA, the CSS Profile also considers a greater percentage of those assets as part of what you can afford to pay for college expenses.
The CSS Profile is also more flexible than the FAFSA. Colleges use the FAFSA in a fairly standard way. After filling out the FAFSA with information on your family income, assets and family size, you’ll get a number called your “expected family contribution.” That’s how much the FAFSA algorithms have determined that your family can afford to pay for college. Your financial need is defined as the difference between a college’s cost of attendance and your expected family contribution. Your financial need, in turn, determines your aid eligibility for federal grants, work-study or subsidized federal student loans. Some colleges may also use the FAFSA to award their own scholarship money, but they’re always doing so based on that same measure of financial need.
Colleges can be more flexible in how they handle the results of the CSS Profile. One college might weigh various parts of your financial information differently than another. Individual colleges can even add their own supplemental questions to the form.
Who has to fill out the CSS Profile?
If you want financial aid, you’ll first need to fill out the FAFSA, as nearly every college and university uses it to award federally available financial aid. More than 200 highly selective schools also ask that you also complete the CSS Profile, which helps determine eligibility for aid from the college’s own funds. The vast majority of profile schools are private colleges, though a few elite public schools, like the University of Michigan and University of Virginia, also require the profile.
If your child is applying to one of those schools or is already enrolled and plans to attend next year, you should complete both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Note that some colleges only require international students to fill out this financial aid application.
What information do you need to answer the form’s questions?
The CSS Profile asks for all the information the FAFSA requires and adds questions about annuities, home equity, retirement funds and sibling assets to build a full financial aid profile. Before you start the application process, gather the necessary documents. You’ll need information about your family’s finances, including:
- Your most recent federal tax returns
- W-2 or 1099 forms for the past two years, to show parents’ income
- Current balance amounts for savings accounts, checking accounts, stocks, bonds, trusts, and UTMA/UGMA accounts for both parents and student
- Current 529 plan values for all children in the home
- Information about your retirement accounts (whether that’s a 401(k), IRA, 403(b), pension, or some combination of those), including most recent annual contributions and account balances
- Information about your primary home and any investment or vacation properties, including how much you paid, what you owe on any mortgages, and what each property is currently worth
How much does the CSS Profile cost?
In the past, low-income students who qualified for an SAT fee waiver could also get a fee waiver on the CSS Profile. But starting this year, the CSS Profile is free for all families earning up to $100,000 a year. For families earning more, the first CSS submission costs $25. Submitting the profile to additional schools costs $16 each.
When is the CSS Profile due?
You can begin filling out the CSS Profile for the next academic year on Oct. 1. So, if you’re planning to attend college in the fall of 2022, you can fill out the form starting in October 2021. Schools set their own, individual CSS Profile deadlines, so check with the colleges where you’re applying to find out when you’ll need to have it done. Most schools’ deadlines are between Jan. 1 and March 31, or during the first quarter of 2022 for students planning to attend college in the fall of 2022.
Plan to complete the submission by two weeks before the deadline. “You might as well be in the early part of the line for money,” says Jim Shagawat, a financial advisor in Paramus, NJ.
Tips for filling out the CSS Profile Application
The FAFSA gets a bad rap for being complicated, but the CSS Profile is even longer and more complex. Start by logging into your College Board account that you used to sign up for the SATs, or create a new account if you don’t have one. Then gather your bank statements, W-2 forms and other paperwork outlined above.
To make it easier on yourself, read the directions, fill out the whole profile, and upload all the supporting documents, says Jason Anderson, a college and student-loan planner in Overland Park, KS. Give yourself plenty of time to assemble everything you’ll need.
“This isn’t exactly like the FAFSA, which runs on the honor system, plus retrieving information from the IRS,” Anderson says. “The CSS wants the documents.”
Here are some additional tips for filling out the form:
Be smart about where you store money
To the best of your ability, shift money into parental assets and away from student assets, especially if you have time to plan. A 529 plan, for this reason, is better than an UTMA or UGMA, because parents or grandparents own a 529 and the student owns an UTMA or UGMA.
Spend down money in any student-owned accounts at least two years before you’ll be applying for aid. A car, orthodontic braces, lessons, educational travel, or a musical instrument can all contribute to a child’s education while also making her more eligible for college financial aid.
Finally, don’t report cash value in a life insurance policy on the CSS form. The CSS Profile doesn’t consider this asset.
Pay attention to the wording of the questions
Answer the specific questions the CSS Profile asks. If the form asks how much you contributed to your 401(k) last year, give that number — not the total amount in that account, says Jenna Shulman, an educational consultant in Florham Park, NJ. Answering the question with the total amount, rather than the current year’s contribution, can make your family look much less eligible for aid than it actually is.
If you own a business, start the application process early
Get property values from Zillow or your property tax assessment, but hire a qualified CPA to value your business, if you own one. Start the process well before the deadline, to give this person enough time to work.
Look into a college’s rules around non-custodial parents
If the student’s parents are divorced or separated, find out whether the college to which you’re submitting wants financial information from both parents or from just the parent with primary custody, says Eric Endlich, a college consultant in Boston, MA. “This can make a big difference in situations where the non-custodial parent is a high earner,” he adds.
Don’t be shy about special circumstances
Tell colleges about extenuating financial circumstances. “Some people don’t realize that there’s a place to explain extenuating circumstances on the CSS,” Shagawat says. “Tell them about medical bills, one-time income sources, income losses, or anything else about your financial situation that they haven’t asked about, but you think is germane.”
How can you get help filling out the profile?
Stumped? Call the hotline with questions. The CSS has people who can help at 844-202-0524. Your college’s financial aid office can also help you figure out how to properly answer a confusing question.
Finally, if you’re just starting the college application process, don’t be put off by the rack rate at private colleges, and don’t avoid applying for financial aid because of the paperwork or because you think you won’t qualify for aid, Anderson says. “Filling out the CSS may get you a significant break.”