Everything You Need to Know to Complete the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is an application for college financial aid required by about 200 undergraduate institutions. Completing the CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, can be arduous, experts say.

“It’s long, it’s detailed, and there’s a cost to it,” says Andy Hoge, vice president of placement and analytics at SEEDS: Access Changes Everything, a nonprofit in New Jersey that prepares low-income students for admission to private colleges. But filling out the form, administered and maintained by the College Board, opens the door to nonfederal scholarships and other kinds of institutional aid that can make a big difference when it comes time to pay for college.

Aiming to paint a fuller picture of a family’s finances, the CSS Profile offers opportunities for families to describe any unique or extenuating circumstances affecting their ability to pay.

“The CSS Profile is going to go more in-depth, so be ready for that,” says Elaine Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors, a higher education resource site. “Unfortunately when it comes to families who don’t want to provide that information, it may be a requirement, especially if your student or child is going to a school that requires the CSS Profile.”

The schools that require the application are mostly private colleges or other institutions that have large endowments, experts say.

[Read: 10 Most, Least Expensive Private Colleges.]

For some families, completing the CSS Profile will result in institutional scholarships and a lower net price, which refers to what the student actually pays to go to a particular college. But for others, submitting the application may not have an impact. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com, suggests students apply to a mix of schools that do and do not require the CSS Profile to maximize their financial aid offers.

“I always say fill out the form, regardless,” Kantrowitz says. “Who knows, you may have some unusual circumstances captured by the form that makes you eligible for financial aid.”

CSS Profile Schools

Only certain schools require the CSS Profile to be considered for need-based financial aid. While many are private institutions, some are public schools.

Here are a few examples of schools that accept or require the CSS Profile:

American University (DC)

William & Mary (VA)

Drexel University (PA)

Fordham University (NY)

Grinnell College (IA)

Northwestern University (IL)

Rice University (TX)

Syracuse University (NY)

Texas Christian University

University of Virginia

Yale University (CT)

See the full list of schools using the CSS profile on the College Board’s website.

How to Complete the CSS Profile

Students applying to a college that requires the CSS Profile or families who need financial aid and are interested in schools that use the form should follow these steps below.

Step 1: Make a College Board account. Students who have taken the SAT may already have a College Board account, which can be used to complete the CSS Profile. Sign in or create a profile by going to https://cssprofile.collegeboard.org/.

Step 2: Gather the necessary documentation. The CSS Profile requires tax documents from the same year as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is required for students interested in receiving federal financial aid. Students who have already completed the FAFSA can use much of the same documentation for the CSS Profile. Families will report their income from two years prior to the year a student plans to attend college on both forms. A family completing the form for the 2021-2022 academic year, for instance, will use the 2019 tax return.

Since the CSS Profile is a very in-depth form, families should expect to need additional documents. These will include their most recently completed tax returns; W-2 forms and other records of current year income; records of untaxed income and benefits; assets; and bank statements, according to the College Board.

Step 3: Select colleges. Students have the opportunity to specify which colleges they want to receive their CSS Profile.

Step 4: Complete the application. “In many ways it’s going to start off feeling very much the same” as the FAFSA, says Scott Wallace-Juedes, director of undergraduate financial aid at Yale. “Tell us about your family, where you live, how old are your parents, do you have other siblings in college. Then it will ask for tax data.”

There will also be an opportunity for families to detail any special circumstances. Experts say this is a good place for families to describe anything not apparent on their tax forms or in any other questions, such as the costs of caring for a grandparent overseas or other financial hardships.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many families may find that their taxes from two years prior do not adequately reflect their current financial situations. Beyond providing details of a special circumstance, families should keep in mind they can also appeal for more aid by contacting a college’s financial aid office.

Step 5: Submit the application. Families must pay a fee or receive a waiver before the CSS Profile will be sent to colleges.

Step 6: Check back. There may be more instructions after the CSS Profile is submitted. Students should refer back to the College Board’s Dashboard to view any necessary action items and to see a payment receipt. After the form is submitted, students can still add colleges where they would like their profile to be sent, though they will be charged for each additional school.

The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

The CSS Profile is different from the FAFSA, the free U.S. Department of Education form that determines a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid.

The CSS Profile allows institutions to ask financial questions not on the FAFSA and to customize the questions. It is more detailed, so it may take more time to complete, but it can also result in additional financial aid.

[See: 10 Common Mistakes Made on the FAFSA.]

“It helps us understand where our families are coming from in such a way that we can better support them through our need programs,” Wallace-Juedes says. “Many of our students receive more aid than if we had just used the federal form.”

A few examples of questions a family may encounter on the CSS Profile but won’t find on the FAFSA include those about the value of the family’s primary home; consideration of the regional cost of living; and information about other educational expenses in the family, like costs for a sibling’s private primary or secondary school, Kantrowitz says.

The CSS Profile is also likely to be very different, and possibly much more extensive, for students with divorced, separated or never-married parents. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile requires financial information from both parents and their spouses.

“A student with divorced parents who lives with the lower-earning parent might be offered more need-based aid at a FAFSA-only school, because that school doesn’t receive the information on the noncustodial parent that the CSS Profile provides,” says Becky Claster, an independent educational consultant and founder of Claster Educational Services in Washington, D.C. “On the other hand, a student in a family with high medical or child care expenses could benefit from sharing this additional information through the CSS Profile, since it’s not reported on the FAFSA.”

CSS Profile Fee Waiver

The CSS Profile requires families to pay a fee, but some can get a fee waiver.

“Note that unlike the FAFSA, which is always free, it costs $25 to fill out the CSS Profile and submit it to one school, plus $16 for each additional college,” Joe DePaulo, CEO and co-founder of College Ave Student Loans, a private student loan provider, wrote in an email. “There are fee waivers available to first-time domestic applicants, for those who qualify.”

Waivers are available to low-income undergraduates who received a SAT fee waiver; in cases where the parental income reported on the CSS Profile application is approximately $45,000 or less for a family of four; or if students are orphans or wards of the court under 24 years old. There is no fee for noncustodial parents with income of $45,000 or less for a family of four.

[Read: How to Pay for College Using These Overlooked Strategies.]

When Is the CSS Profile Deadline?

Because each institution has a different CSS Profile, the deadlines also vary.

Experts say the CSS Profile deadlines often align with admissions deadlines, but students should check with their college to ensure they submit the form on time.

Families can begin completing the CSS Profile when it opens on Oct. 1 each year, the same day the FAFSA opens.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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Everything You Need to Know to Complete the CSS Profile originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 10/01/20: This article has been updated with new information.

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