9 things you should know about the CSS Profile so you can “Know Before You Go”
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
October 2, 2020
When families file for federal financial aid, they will complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is required at colleges to determine eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. Some colleges use an alternate or institutional method for determining need and help them award non-federal aid (over $9 billion in grants is available). They will turn to the CSS Profile application administered by the College Board for this purpose.
The CSS Profile is used by almost 400 institutions. Families are often surprised to find that some colleges consider their home equity in the calculation. They are also surprised by how tedious, cumbersome, difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive the CSS Profile process can be. Not to worry, we have you covered.
The most prestigious colleges in the country use this application to decide whether a student will receive aid to their schools, and these schools have billions of dollars available to award to students. Since these schools will cost a student six figures to attend, families will want to try to qualify for as much aid as possible!
Here are 9 things you should know about the CSS Profile:
1. As we noted above, almost 400 colleges require the CSS Profile.
When researching colleges make note if your desired school is one of them. Here’s a listing.
2. The CSS Profile will require more detailed information about the parent’s and student’s finances.
Take some time before starting to gather needed documents like 2 years of tax returns (from the two years prior), W-2 forms and records of income, records of untaxed income, bank statements, and records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, etc. for both the student and the parents.
Sometimes schools may request copies of documents via the IDOC (Institutional Documentation Service). Completion of the CSS Profile is not as quick as the FAFSA so set aside a block of time to do it. The College Board says you will need anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours to complete it. (Ouch!)
3. CSS Profile deadlines can vary by university so you need to check with the school for their deadline.
Deadlines can come very early in your student’s senior year of high school so that they can put together your financial aid package alongside your admissions acceptance. The application opens on October 1st each year so plan to get it done right away. Be sure to submit your CSS Profile by midnight Eastern Time of your earliest priority filing date.
4. Unlike the FAFSA which has “free” in its title and does not cost anything to file, the CSS Profile is NOT free.
The initial application fee is $25 and includes one college. Additional colleges are $16 each. Waivers are available for low income students.
5. Carefully review your information before submitting the CSS Profile.
You can NOT make changes online after submitting, with the exception of updated tax information after you have filed. (Mistakes would need to be corrected by contacting the college’s financial aid office directly.) Also know you can add colleges later, but you cannot delete them. So review, review, review before submitting.
6. Parents can create a separate log in from their student’s account.
Also if you have multiple students applying to the same college, they each need their own account.
7. Include expenses.
A family’s expenses (mortgage, medical, parent’s student loans, & high school tuition) become part of the overall picture with the CSS Profile so a college can get a more detailed glimpse of the special circumstances surrounding your financial ability to pay tuition at their school. In contrast, the FAFSA does not take into account family expenses at all. If you have “special circumstances,” you will want to notify each school that only uses the FAFSA.
8. In most cases, the custodial parents, the ones the student lives with the most, are the ones who report their financial details.
Custodial parents may include step-parents, adoptive parents, non-married parents, and guardians. Many universities utilizing the CSS Profile will also require financial information from the non-custodial parent and request a supplemental application to include both parents regardless of marital status. As you can imagine, this can have a significant impact on the family’s expected family contribution (EFC). You can find information about non-custodial parents here.
9. Finally, what about your home’s equity? Some schools will use your home equity against your student’s financial aid, and some will not.
Think of it this way…schools using the “Institutional Method” to determine your Expected Family Contribution or EFC have discretion over how much or how little of your home’s equity they expect you to use towards the cost of education. This idea may seem crazy to you, but better you know ahead of time.
Also, this number can change from year to year and from institution to institution. Your best bet is to call the financial aid office and simply ask if they consider home equity as a resource to pay for college, and if so, how do they determine this amount. Oftentimes, the home equity value is limited to a multiple of your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)–for example, a maximum value of 1.2x your AGI.
Bonus tip: If the student already has a College Board username and password from taking the SAT or PSAT or Subject Tests, use that same login information to complete the CSS Profile.
Elite universities have elite levels of endowed aid to award to those who are eligible. Qualifying for that aid can be difficult, but completing the CSS Profile will get you started.
Our soap box…Remember the cost of these elite schools can be prohibitive. Your student’s academics may get them in, but the costs may be a road block. Cast your net a little wider!
Originally published 8/2015