CSS Profile: How to maximize financial aid

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The CSS Profile is a form that some colleges use to determine institutional financial aid. Used by almost 200 institutions nationwide, the CSS Profile asks more questions than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and can qualify students for aid packages funded by their college. Here’s what you should know about this application before filling it out.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is an online application used to award institutional aid, grants and scholarships, while the FAFSA is used to award federal and state aid and grants. The CSS Profile is used only by specific colleges and universities. Because of this, students should always complete the FAFSA and fill out the CSS only if their college requires it.

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: Oct. 1 of each year. For the 2021-22 academic year, the opening date for the application was Oct. 1, 2020. If you’re applying for financial aid at multiple schools, you can add the schools you’d like to send your application to on your online dashboard.

The CSS Profile application is much lengthier and more detailed 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 fee to submit an application to the first school and a $16 fee for every subsequent application. However, these fees can be waived for orphans or wards of the court under the age of 24, students who qualify for SAT fee waivers and students below the income threshold based on family size.

What questions does the CSS Profile ask?

The CSS Profile asks more questions about income streams and assets than the FAFSA, and many colleges also add their own supplemental questions to get a more comprehensive view of your financial situation. Michael McLaughlin, director of financial aid operations at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, says that this is because more aid is often at stake with private institutions that require the CSS Profile.

“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 CSS Profile assesses the money you have, but it also examines the money you pay out with questions about your family’s medical expenses, debts, mortgage status, business expenses and other costs not included on the FAFSA.

The CSS Profile may ask for more information, but more assets doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser 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, including which assets and expenses to take into consideration.

How to complete the CSS Profile

To begin the CSS Profile process, go to the CSS Profile website. Here you can find the application itself, check participating schools and scholarships and locate resources to assist you.

The application fee is $25 for the first college and $16 for each additional college, but the CSS Profile fee is waived for eligible students – eligibility for fee waivers is calculated automatically by the form. In the case of a divorce or separation, some colleges require a separate application from 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 it, its purchase price, its current value, mortgage information and more.

CSS Profile tips and tricks

The CSS Profile is more thorough than the FAFSA, but there are certain steps applicants 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.
  • Monitor deadlines. The CSS Profile deadline is often significantly earlier than that of the FAFSA, and deadlines will vary from school to school. Complete the application as soon as possible to take advantage of aid awards distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

CSS Profile schools

There are hundreds of schools that use the CSS Profile to help determine financial aid eligibility. These include major Ivy League institutions, smaller schools and even state schools.

Here are some examples of schools that use the CSS Profile:

  • Baylor University.
  • Bryn Mawr College.
  • California Institute of Technology.
  • Duke University.
  • Georgetown University.
  • Harvard College.
  • Johns Hopkins University.
  • Middlebury College.
  • Stanford University.
  • Tulane University.
  • University of Michigan.
  • University of Virginia.
  • Vanderbilt University.
  • Wake Forest University.
  • Yale University.

To see the full list of schools that currently accept the CSS Profile, visit the CSS Profile’s database.

The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

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

The CSS Profile

  • Cost to apply: $25 for the first college, $16 for each additional college. Certain students may be eligible to have these 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 and state, can be institutional.
  • Who can apply: U.S. citizens or qualifying noncitizens enrolled in an eligible degree or certification program.
  • Where to apply: U.S. Department of Education.

Keep in mind that the CSS Profile is not a substitute for the FAFSA; it’s a supplement for specific colleges and universities. If your prospective college uses the CSS Profile, you’ll still want to fill out both applications. Without the FAFSA, you won’t be eligible for federal student loans, federal grants like the Pell Grant or state grants.

The bottom line

The CSS Profile may require more information than the FAFSA, but it’s a good step if you’re applying to a college that requires it for financial aid. By not filling out the CSS Profile, you could miss out on thousands of dollars of gift aid that is offered only through the college’s own financial aid funds.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor
Reviewed by
Mark Kantrowtiz
Nationally recognized student financial aid expert