CSS Profile: How to maximize financial aid

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Prepping for college? In addition to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (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 (CSS) Profile. Used by nearly 400 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.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is an online application used to award nonfederal aid, grants and scholarships. It’s only used by specific colleges and universities, and it’s different from the FAFSA in both aid and application.

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile doesn’t have a national deadline; the deadline to apply can vary from school to school. However, the CSS Profile does have an opening date. For the 2021-22 academic year, the opening date for the application is Oct. 1, 2020. If you’re applying for aid at multiple schools, you can add the schools you’d like to send your application to on your online dashboard.

The CSS Profile is also a much lengthier and more extensive application than the FAFSA. The application considers income streams, assets and expenses not included on the FAFSA, 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.

There’s a $25 application fee to submit an application to the first school and a $16 cost for every school after that. However, these fees can be waived for students who qualify for SAT fee waivers, orphans or wards of the court under the age of 24 and students below the income threshold based on family size.

The aid also varies: The CSS Profile is used to award nonfederal financial aid, grants and scholarships, while the FAFSA is used to award federal aid and grants.

What questions does the CSS Profile ask?

The CSS Profile is a much lengthier application than the FAFSA, since it considers more income streams and assets than the FAFSA.

“(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, Illinois. “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, Vermont, is because at private institutions that require the CSS Profile, bigger aid is often at stake. “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, mortgage status, 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. 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.

How to complete the CSS Profile

To begin the CSS process, go to the CSS Profile website. Here you can find the application, check participating schools and scholarships and find resources to assist you in the application. The application fee is $25 for the first college and $16 for each additional college, but the CSS Profile is free for eligible students.

In the case of a divorce or separation, some colleges require a separate application from both biological parents: both the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent.

You may need to have the following forms on hand to complete your application:

  • Most recently completed tax returns.
  • W-2 or 1099 forms for the past two years.
  • Total untaxed income and benefits for the current and previous tax years.
  • Current savings, checking, stocks, bonds, trusts, UTMA and UGMA balances for both the parent and the student.
  • Current 529 plan balance for all children in the home.
  • Current balance of all retirement savings accounts.
  • Information about your primary residence, including the year you purchased the home, its purchase price, its current value, mortgage information and more.

CSS Profile tips and tricks

The Profile is more thorough than the FAFSA, but there are steps families can take to maximize their aid eligibility:

  • Don’t overestimate the value of your primary home. By keeping the value of your home low, your expected family contribution also stays down.
  • Shift assets from accounts held in a student’s name to those held in a parent’s name. Many schools give greater weight to assets held in a student’s name than those held in a parent’s name, though those formulas can vary by institution.
  • Turn in the application by the correct deadline. The CSS Profile can be due significantly earlier than the FAFSA, and financial aid deadlines will vary from school to school. Complete the application as soon as possible to take advantage of the aid awards that are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

There are important distinctions to be aware of between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Here some key differences to consider.

The CSS Profile

  • Cost to apply: $25 for the first college, $16 for each additional college. However, you may be eligible to have the fees waived.
  • Aid: Institutional.
  • Who can apply: Undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
  • Where to apply: College Board.

FAFSA

  • Cost to apply: Free.
  • Aid: Primarily federal, can be institutional.
  • Who can apply: U.S. citizens or qualifying noncitizens enrolled in an eligible degree or certification program.
  • Where to apply: Department of Education.

Keep in mind that the CSS Profile is not a substitute for the FAFSA; rather, it’s a supplement for specific colleges and universities. If your prospective college uses the CSS Profile, you’ll want to fill out both applications.

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