Everything You Need to Know to Complete the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is an application for college financial aid required by 300 colleges, universities and scholarship organizations. Completing the CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, can be cumbersome, experts say.

But recent changes to the CSS Profile are expected to make the process more accessible and affordable for both low- and middle-income families.

“For some students, any kind of form can be a challenge to fill out,” says Samantha Veeder, associate dean of college enrollment and director of financial aid at the University of Rochester in New York. “But it is absolutely necessary in order for colleges and universities to gather the data that they need to award their limited financial aid grants and scholarships in a way that’s equitable.”

What Is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile, 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, director of corporate communications 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. Experts suggest families use a net price calculator — a tool that takes potential financial aid into account to determine a rough estimate of the total cost of attendance.

“I would encourage families to fill out the application because in most cases, it will disqualify them for consideration for need-based financial aid if they don’t fill out the CSS profile application,” Brian Lee-Sang, assistant vice provost for financial aid at American University, wrote in an email.

“I have seen many families who believed they wouldn’t qualify, get significant aid. There is no drawback for applying other than the time spent and the small fee charged by CSS to some families. The need-based grant aid available from most private universities is significantly higher than what they could qualify for through the FAFSA. It’s always worth the shot.”

CSS Profile Schools

Only certain colleges and universities 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 for the 2022-2023 school year:

Alabama A&M University

Brandeis University (MA)

Duke University (NC)

Emory University (GA)

Grinnell College (IA)

Oregon State University

Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ)

Tulane University (LA)

University of Southern California

Villanova University (PA)

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA)

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.

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/.

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.

On both forms, families will report their income from two years prior to the year a student plans to attend college. A family completing the form for the 2022-2023 academic year, for instance, will use the 2020 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.

Select Colleges

Students have the opportunity to specify which colleges they want to receive their CSS Profile. There is no limit to the number of schools a student can apply to, even under a fee waiver, according to Gail Holt, dean of financial aid at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

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 College, a constituent school of Yale University in Connecticut. “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.”

For the 2022-2023 CSS Profile, previously introduced features like skip logic, which reduces questions for low-income families, were updated to make the form easier to complete. Other new enhancements include fewer school-specific questions. A shorter version of the form is in the development stages and is expected to launch in fall 2022.

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 situation. 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.

Submit the Application

Families must pay a fee or receive a waiver before the CSS Profile will be sent to colleges.

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.

If a student notices a mistake after submission, one-time corrections can now be made through the “Correct Your CSS Profile” section on their dashboard.

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 assets specific to a family’s primary residence and information about medical or additional educational expenses.

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 — $25 for initial applications and $16 per additional reports. But recent income guideline changes from the College Board doubled the number of students eligible for a fee waiver, according to Veeder.

Families and noncustodial parents with adjusted gross incomes under $100,000 can fill out the CSS Profile for free.

“I have found that sometimes middle-income families struggle more to make college affordable for them based on their situation because less resources are available for them than to low-income families,” Veeder says.

Waivers are also available to low-income undergraduates who received a SAT fee waiver or if students are orphans or wards of the court under 24 years old. These requirements apply only to domestic undergraduates. International students typically have access to fee payment codes offered by nonprofit organizations and many colleges and universities, Holt says.

[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 10/01/21: This article has been updated with new information.

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