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CSS Profile: How to maximize financial aid

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Highlights
  • More than 350 private schools rely on the CSS Profile to award financial aid.
  • The Profile delves deeply into parents' finances since aid packages can be huge.
  • Schools individually decide how to interpret CSS Profile information.

College Finance » CSS Profile: How To Maximize Financial Aid

Financial aid season is upon us, and in addition to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the form that qualifies students for federal grants, loans and work-study jobs, some students will also have to file the College Scholarship Service, or CSS, Profile. Used by nearly 400 private institutions throughout the U.S., the CSS Profile is much more extensive than the FAFSA and can qualify students for enormous nonfederal financial aid packages funded by their college. Here's what you need to know.

More questions, fewer sheltered accounts

The CSS Profile is a much lengthier application than the FAFSA. That's because the application considers income streams and assets the FAFSA does not such as retirement accounts, life insurance plans, home equity on a family's primary residence, and income and assets held by a noncustodial parent in cases of divorce.

"(The application) basically asks you about every little bitty detail about parents' finances and assets," says Dan Maga II, vice president of American College Funding, a college planning firm in Wilmette, Ill. "It can get down into what kind of car you drive, what kind of church you go to, just about everything under the sun they can ask."

In addition to the basic CSS Profile, many colleges also add their own supplemental questions to get an even fuller view of your financial situation. The reason, explains Michael McLaughlin, director of financial aid operations at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., is because at private institutions that require the CSS Profile, bigger aid is often at stake. The average yearly grant package at Middlebury tops $36,000.

"We need to be more diligent on the information that we collect and get a more accurate picture for each student when giving out high amounts of institutional aid," he says.

The Profile assesses the money you have, but it also takes the money you pay out into consideration by asking questions about your family's medical expenses, debts, whether your family's home is underwater, business expenses and other miscellaneous costs that aren't included on the FAFSA.

The Profile may ask for more information, but that doesn't necessarily mean all assets will subtract from a student's financial aid package.

"As far as retirement assets go ... we like to have that information available, but it's not factored into (our) actual aid calculation," says Kim Downs-Burns, associate vice president for student financial services at Middlebury.

Unlike the FAFSA, which determines how much government aid you're eligible for regardless of where you attend school, colleges and universities individually decide how to interpret CSS Profile information and which assets and expenses to take into consideration.

Maximizing your aid

The Profile is more thorough than the FAFSA, but there are steps families can take to maximize their aid eligibility. Maga says the number one mistake families make is overestimating the value of their primary home.

"The lower they keep their value, within reason, they're going to help keep their expected family contribution down and potentially garner more aid," he explains.

Maga adds that as with the federal aid methodology, many schools also give greater weight to assets held in a student's name than those held in a parent's name, though it's difficult to quantify by exactly how much because aid formulas vary from institution to institution. To up your federal aid eligibility as well as potential aid eligibility on the CSS Profile, Maga recommends that families shift assets from accounts held in a student's name to those held in a parent's name prior to filling out either form.

With so many questions, mistakes are easy to make, and deadlines are easy to miss, says Al Hoffman, director of the College Funding Service Center college consulting firm in Waterford, Conn. Whereas the FAFSA is free, goes to all schools and doesn't become available until Jan. 1 of the year students will attend college, the CSS Profile is limited only to select private schools, costs $25 to submit for the first school applied to and $16 per school after that (fee waivers are available to certain students) and becomes available in fall of the year before the student will attend school.

The CSS Profile is frequently due significantly earlier than the FAFSA as well. Many schools require students applying for early decision or early action to file the application by Nov. 15 of the year before they attend. And regular admission students often must file by Feb.1 of the year they will attend. Financial aid deadlines for both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA vary from school to school and in both cases, families are urged to estimate their income tax figures and submit the forms as early as possible to take advantage of aid awards that are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"You really can't wait," says Hoffman.

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