What You Need to Know About the CSS Profile

You know all about the FAFSA, but are you familiar with the CSS Profile for institutional aid? Learn all about this form and why you should fill it out.

You probably know about the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and why you need to fill it out to qualify for financial aid. But there’s another form that’s equally as important for some families. Approximately 250 colleges and universities—mostly private institutions but also a few public—use the College Board’s CSS Profile, and if you apply to any of these schools, you’ll need to fill it out.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is an online financial aid form used to award non-federal, institutional financial aid to qualifying students. “The Profile is a tool colleges use to determine how to fairly and equitably distribute their own money,” says Tom O’Hare, Massachusetts-based independent college counselor and owner of Get College Going. If you apply to a selective private college, you could receive an institutional need grant or merit scholarship—or both—from the college itself. Your family still needs to file the FAFSA to qualify for federal financial aid, but the largest portion of aid could come from the college. Colleges use the Profile to calculate aid with what’s called the Institutional Methodology (IM). Each college calculates your need according to its own formula, and every school’s formula is different. You could potentially qualify for substantial need-based aid or a merit scholarship at one college and not get much at all from another.

Related: Common Financial Aid Questions Answered by an Insider

Why colleges use the CSS Profile

CSS Profile colleges can be generous with grants and scholarships, otherwise known as “gift aid,” but they want a detailed picture of parent and student finances first. If you’ve heard the FAFSA is complicated, get ready: the Profile is much more involved. “Colleges want to see those additional parent resources that separate one family from another,” O’Hare says.

What the calculation includes

To gauge need, the CSS Profile digs much deeper than the FAFSA. The goal is to differentiate between those who truly need financial aid and those who simply appear to qualify. For example, the Profile takes into account home equity, mortgage, and small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The FAFSA doesn’t ask about any of these things. The Profile is also more complicated for divorced or separated parents. “Most CSS Profile schools want to see both parents’ incomes as well as stepparent income, regardless of which house your student lives in most of the time,” says Luanne Lee, a Virginia-based independent college counselor and owner of Your College Planning Coach. Check whether your Profile schools require the additional Noncustodial form. The FAFSA, in contrast, requires just one application—from the household (including stepparent income) where the student lives 51% or more of the time.

On the upside for families, the Profile asks about medical expenses above a specific threshold, tuition for private K-12 schools, and other education-related costs, so you could luck out if your family has expenses in these categories. It also allows schools to factor in cost-of-living adjustments for high-cost areas. The FAFSA doesn’t ask about these expenses.

Related: How to Get Financial Aid for College: The Ultimate Guide

Information you need for filing

Financial documents you’ll need on hand for the CSS Profile include your federal tax return from two years prior (the year you were a high school sophomore), W-2s and other records of income, bank and asset statements from the day of filing, small-business information, untaxed income records, and mortgage statements. Additionally, schools may ask extra questions for their specific institution and may require uploading documents such as tax returns through a portal. If your parents’ income situation changed after your sophomore year, it’s very important you still use the prior-prior tax return on the form. “You can include a description of any extenuating circumstances,” O’Hare says. Then after filing, contact each school to request a one-on-one meeting for a professional judgment review. Schools will consider the new circumstances.

When you should file

Like the FAFSA, the Profile opens October 1, and your family will file it during your senior year. Every school has its own CSS Profile deadline, so check each school’s website, Lee says. Experts recommend you file both your FAFSA and Profile on the same day to capture matching bank and asset balances. Sometimes parents panic about getting their FAFSA in on October 2, but there’s no need to rush that much on either form. However, submitting them in a timely manner is highly recommended.

Understanding your institutional EFC

Your expected family contribution (EFC) is a measure of your family’s financial strength based on factors like family size, number of kids in college, income, and assets. Schools use it to calculate financial aid you’re eligible for. In practical terms, it’s the amount colleges think you can pay for school. Many families feel they can’t afford their EFC; says O’Hare, “The family’s perception and the institution’s perception of need can be night and day.”

Every partner college will calculate an individual EFC for you. However, the Profile form doesn’t list an EFC the way the FAFSA’s Student Aid Report does, so it’s difficult to know how each college determines it or even what the amount is. As a guideline, you can get a snapshot of your institutional EFC using the College Board’s Big Future calculator. It’s important to be as accurate as possible. The FAFSA generates its own federal EFC. Sometimes institutional and federal EFCs are similar, sometimes not—particularly if you’re divorced or have a complicated financial picture not captured on the FAFSA. At a minimum, you can generally expect to pay your EFC—or more—unless it’s high enough that a merit scholarship drops final cost of attendance below it, or it exceeds cost of attendance.

Related: Important Things to Know About Your EFC

Types of aid awarded

Some Profile schools meet 100% of need (the gap between cost of attendance and EFC), but most won’t. Many families pay more than their EFC because they don’t receive enough financial aid. Even if colleges do meet need, many combine “gift aid” with loans. A few elite colleges offer packages without loans for incomes under specific thresholds, but these schools are very competitive to get into. Each college will create a financial aid award according to its institutional policies and will include any federal funds your student is entitled to (loans, work-study, and federal grants). Some students won’t qualify for institutional need grants but could earn a merit scholarship. Some students might get both. Some might get need grants only, which is more common at very elite institutions that don’t offer much—if any—merit aid.

What it costs to file

Sending the Profile report to each partner college costs money: $25 for the first and $16 per college after that. However, students who qualify for an SAT fee waiver will also qualify for a CSS Profile fee waiver (generally, students whose parents earn approximately $45,000 or less a year).

Filling out the form

The College Board offers a tutorial with a fairly in-depth overview of how to fill out the Profile. Embedded are suggestions for other mini-presentations on specific topics. In his book Paying for College Without Going Broke, Kal Chany offers detailed explanations to guide you through each section of the form. His book is issued every year with annual updates about financial aid forms. It’s worth having on hand. Some family situations are complicated, and schools expect to know every detail.

Why you shouldn’t skip it

Many people assume they make too much money to qualify for need-based aid. Others think applying to a $60,000 college is out of reach. But many students who don’t qualify for aid at a public institution do qualify for aid at private colleges, or they could be awarded a solid merit scholarship. For some families, a private college can end up being more affordable than a public university. Don’t assume—fill out the form!

Related: Private vs. Public: Which Is Right for You?

The CSS Profile may seem complicated and just like one more thing to add to the pile of things you have to do. But if you’re willing to put in the time, this important financial aid form could make a big difference in your ability to pay for college and the assistance you get. Now you have a better understanding of this valuable resource and how you can use it to your advantage.

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