The CSS Profile is a college financial aid application required by 300 colleges, universities, and scholarship agencies. According to experts, completing the CSS Profile, short for College Scholarship Service Profile, can be tedious.
But recent changes to the CSS profile should make the process more accessible and affordable for low- and middle-income families.
“For some students, any type 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’s absolutely necessary for colleges and universities to gather the data they need to award their limited financial aid grants and scholarships in a fair way.”
What is the CSS profile?
The CSS profile, administered and maintained by the College Board, opens the door to non-federal scholarships and other types of institutional aid that can make a big difference when it comes to paying for college.
Aimed to paint a more complete picture of a family’s finances, the CSS Profile offers families the opportunity to describe any unique or extenuating circumstances affecting their ability to pay.
“The CSS profile is going to go deeper, so be prepared 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 this information, this may be a requirement, especially if your student or child goes to a school that requires the CSS profile.”
Schools that require application are mostly private colleges or other institutions with 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 attend 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 factors in potential financial aid to determine a rough estimate of the total cost of attendance.
“I encourage families to complete the application because in most cases it will disqualify them for need-based financial assistance if they do not complete the CSS profile application,” Brian Lee-Sang, Associate Vice President of finance aid at American University, wrote in an email.
“I’ve seen many families who thought they wouldn’t qualify, get significant help. There’s no downside to applying other than the time spent and the small fee CSS charges some families. Subsidized need-based aid available from most universities is significantly higher than what they could qualify for through the FAFSA. It’s always worth a shot.”
CSS profile schools
Only some 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 some examples of schools accepting or requiring 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 (AP)
— Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA)
See the full list of schools using the CSS profile on the College Board’s website.
How to fill the CSS profile
Students applying to a college that requires the CSS profile or families in need of financial assistance who are interested in schools using the form should follow the steps below.
Create 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. Log 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 seeking 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 income for the two years prior to the year a student plans to go to college. A family filling out the form for the 2022-2023 academic year, for example, will use the 2020 tax return.
Since the CSS profile is a very detailed form, families should expect to need additional documentation. These will include their most recent tax returns; W-2 forms and other income statements for the current year; records of untaxed income and benefits; assets; and bank statements, according to the College Board.
Students have the option of specifying which colleges they wish to receive their CSS profile from. 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.
Fill out the application
“In many ways, it’s going to start to feel pretty 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 any other siblings in college. Then it will ask you for tax data.”
For the CSS 2022-2023 profile, previously introduced features like skip logic, which reduces questions for low-income families, have been updated to make the form easier to complete. Other new improvements include fewer school-specific questions. A shorter version of the form is in development and is expected to launch in fall 2022.
Families will also have the opportunity to detail any particular situation. Experts say this is a good place for families to describe anything that doesn’t appear on their tax forms or in any other matter, such as the costs of caring for a grandparent overseas or other financial difficulties.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many families may find that their taxes for the previous two years do not adequately reflect their current financial situation. In addition to providing details about a particular circumstance, families should keep in mind that they can also apply for additional help by contacting a college’s financial aid office.
Families must pay a fee or receive a waiver before the CSS profile is sent to colleges.
There may be more instructions after submitting the CSS profile. Students should refer to the College Board Dashboard to view necessary actions and to see a payment receipt. Once the form is submitted, students can still add colleges where they would like their profile sent, although they will be charged for each additional school.
If a student notices an error after submission, spot corrections can now be made via the “Fix your CSS profile” section on their dashboard.
The CSS profile versus the FAFSA
The CSS profile is different from the FAFSA, the free US Department of Education form that determines a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid. The CSS profile allows institutions to ask non-FAFSA financial questions and customize the questions. It is more detailed, so it may take longer to complete, but it may also result in additional financial assistance.
[See: 10 Common Mistakes Made on the FAFSA.]
“It helps us understand where our families are coming from so we can better support them through our needs programs,” Wallace-Juedes said. “A lot of our students are getting more help than if we had just used the federal form.”
Some examples of questions a family may encounter on the CSS profile but will not find on the FAFSA include those about assets specific to a family’s primary residence and information about additional medical or education expenses.
The CSS profile is also likely to be very different, and possibly much broader, for students whose parents are divorced, separated, or never married. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS profile requires financial information from both parents and their spouses.
“A student whose parents are divorced and who lives with the lowest-earning parent may be offered more needs-based assistance at a FAFSA-only school because that school does not receive the non-custodial parent information provided by the CSS profile,” says Becky Claster, independent educational consultant and founder of Claster Educational Services in Washington, D.C. “On the other hand, a student from a family with high medical or childcare costs might benefit from sharing this additional information through the CSS profile, as it is not reported on the FAFSA.”
CSS Profile Fee Waiver
The CSS profile requires families to pay a fee — $25 for initial requests and $16 per additional report. But recent changes to the College Board’s income guidelines have doubled the number of students eligible for a fee waiver, according to Veeder.
Families and non-custodial parents with an adjusted gross income of less than $100,000 can complete the CSS profile for free.
“I’ve found that sometimes middle-income families have a harder time making college affordable for them based on their circumstances because fewer resources are available to them than to low-income families,” Veeder says.
Waivers are also available for low-income undergraduate students who have received an SAT fee waiver or if the students are orphans or wards of court under the age of 24. These requirements apply to domestic undergraduate students only. International students typically have access to fee payment codes offered by nonprofits and many colleges and universities, Holt says.
[Read: How to Pay for College Using These Overlooked Strategies.]
When is the CSS profile deadline?
As each establishment has a different CSS profile, the deadlines also vary. Experts say CSS profile deadlines often match admissions deadlines, but students should check with their college to make sure they submit the form on time.
Families can begin filling out the CSS profile when it opens on October 1 each year, the same day the FAFSA opens.
Are you trying to finance your studies? Get tips and more at US News’ Paying for College hub.