Most families welcome financial aid from outside sources to help them pay for a college education. Although they may not accept all financial aid offered to them, they prefer as wide an array of choices as possible. Two important applications should be submitted by families seeking to maximize offers of financial aid.
First, it’s essential that families seeking financial aid submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s the only way to receive aid from the Federal government as well as from colleges and other sources of financial aid that base eligibility on the information in the FAFSA.
Second, the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile) should be submitted by applicants to colleges that participate in the CSS program. This makes the applicants eligible to receive financial aid from these colleges in the form of scholarships and other types of gift aid based on need. Gift aid does not need to be repaid.
How the CSS Profile Can Help Students
The CSS Profile is required for financial aid by the 240 colleges in the CSS program. They ‘re mostly private, selective institutions that have endowments of sufficient size to enable them to offer substantial amounts of need-based aid. The Profile enables an applicant to be considered for a scholarship, stipend, or grant. It’s also used to determine eligibility for the private non-college scholarships in the CSS program.
The Profile is an online product of the College Board, the same nonprofit that administers the PSAT, SAT, Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). The College Board is a membership association that includes over 6,000 secondary schools, universities, colleges, and other educational organizations.
The form that applicants use to create a CSS Profile becomes available online on the College Board’s website on October 1 of the calendar year preceding the year for which the student is seeking financial aid. Deadlines for submission of the form vary by college but they usually align with the deadline for a college’s admissions applications. Rather than wait for the deadline, applicants should submit Profiles as early as possible because CSS aid programs operate on a first-come-first-served basis. When a program runs out of money, subsequent applicants, no matter how well qualified, are rejected. Students should check with colleges on the earliest date of acceptance for CSS Profiles.
The College Board fee for the CSS Profile is $25 to submit the form to a single college or scholarship program. The fee is $16 for each additional college or program.
Families should anticipate that questions of a more personal and detailed nature will be asked on the Profile than are asked on the FAFSA. Questions cover the value of a family’s primary residence and family-owned business as well as the cost of private primary and secondary education of siblings. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2021 called the CSS Profile the “most onerous form in college admissions.” Families should brace themselves for it. For students who aspire to attend a CSS college and need outside help to do so, it’s worth the discomfort of answering the Profile’s questions in exchange for possible financial aid.
Improvements to the CSS Profile
The College Board knows that the form has problems because they’ve seen the ramifications of them. CSS membership has declined from 450 to 240 institutions in the last few years. Some members stopped using the CSS form and created their own financial aid applications.
In order to prevent a stampede of colleges exiting the program, the College Board announced that changes were being made to improve the form. The Board integrated an initial set of changes in the 2022-23 form, as follows:
- Noncustodial Parent Application Requirement
On the CSS Profile, applicants are asked to list all parents, which includes:
• Biological parents
• Adoptive parents
• Current stepparents
• Current parental partners
• Current legal guardians
Once all parents are identified, the CSS Profile then asks applicants to report:
• The parent with whom they live
• The parent whose information is provided on the Profile
Historically, the College Board required an applicant’s noncustodial parents to complete a portion of the CSS Profile, but this proved to be too difficult for some applicants due to family circumstances.
On the 2022-23 Profile, the Board added more options to the answer of the “Household Verification” question, which is the one that asks about biological and adoptive parents. The new answers that have been added include:
• Parent is deceased
• Single adoptive parent at the time of adoption
• A single parent of a donor-conceived child
• Parent is unknown
• Parent is incarcerated
• Legal orders or documented abuse involving the noncustodial parent
• Student has no contact with the noncustodial parent
If an applicant selects any of the answers above, the Profile does not require that the noncustodial parent complete part of the application.
- CSS Profile Corrections
Another change to the 2022-23 CSS Profile is the introduction of a formal process by which applicants can make corrections to their Profile. In the past, there was a manual process that was slow and tedious for applicants and colleges. To remedy this, the Board: 1) Added previously missing data so that colleges have everything they need to review an application, 2) Allows applicants to explain any concerns or issues as part of their application, and 3) Ensures that colleges receive updated information automatically.
The most important area to which applicants are now able to make corrections is dependency status. The new process also allows applicants to add missing business, real estate, and farm information.
Applicants are now able to add explanatory text to their Profile. They can provide information that they believe a college or scholarship program should know about their financial status before determining eligibility. For example, a family may have recently experienced high medical bills or a parental job loss. This type of information can now be added as a correction. Applicants may submit corrections only once.
- Eliminating Fees
Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, CSS Profile users must pay the fees mentioned above to submit Profiles unless they are granted a fee waiver. The College Board expanded eligibility for fee waivers. It’s now free to undergraduate applicants if their family has adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less. Based on this expansion, the Board forecasts that the percentage of applicants eligible for fee waivers will double to 40%.
Completing the Profile Form
Helpful information about completing the Profile, including a tutorial with step-by-step instructions for applicants and parents, is available on the College Board website. The Board also offers downloads that can be used for reference.
The following steps comprise the CSS Profile process for applicants:
Step 1: Set up a College Board account. Students who have taken the SAT will already have a College Board account that can be used to complete the CSS Profile.
Step 2: Gather the necessary documentation. Students who have already completed the FAFSA can use some of the same documentation for the CSS Profile. Families need to report their income from two years prior to the year in which the applicants intends to begin college. Since the Profile is more comprehensive than the FAFSA, families need additional documents such as last year’s tax returns, W-2 forms, and other records of current income; records of untaxed income; assessments of fixed assets including primary residences and family-owned small businesses; and records of financial assets such as securities and bank balances.
Step 3: Select colleges and scholarships programs. Applicants specify the colleges and scholarship programs that are to receive their Profile.
Step 4: Relevant information. This is the section where applicants can explain information that they think should be considered as part of the applicant’s eligibility determination.
Step 5: Submit the Profile. Applicants must pay the fees noted above or be granted a fee waiver from the College Board before the Profile is sent to designated colleges and scholarship programs.
Step 6: Check back with the College Board. There may be more instructions after the Profile is submitted and sent to colleges and programs. Applicants can refer to their account at the College Board website to view action items.