Each year, the CSS Profile unlocks over $10 billion in non-federal aid for students, complementing the FAFSA in securing crucial funds for college. This CSS Profile guide explores how and when to fill it out – and how to ensure you get the most money possible for your situation.
What is the CSS Profile?
The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an additional financial aid application used by many private colleges and universities in the United States. Unlike the FAFSA, which is administered by the federal government, the CSS Profile is managed by the College Board.
This application provides a more detailed and comprehensive view of a student’s financial situation, allowing colleges to distribute their institutional aid effectively.
Purpose of the CSS Profile
The main purpose of the CSS Profile is to assess a student’s eligibility for non-federal financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and institutional aid. It helps colleges and universities determine how much financial assistance a student may need beyond what is offered through federal aid programs.
“It can be a great thing, although it can (also) be very tedious,” said Luanne Lee, a Certified College Planning Specialist with Your College Planning Coach. During a Road2College FB Live, Ms. Lee provided a summary of the CSS Profile, and what you need to know and do. We’ve included the highlights here.
How Is the CSS Profile Different From FAFSA?
Although CSS is often compared to FAFSA, here are the key differences between the two:
- FAFSA is required by most universities, whereas CSS is only required by certain private universities and some state universities. Check with the schools you’re interested in to see if they require you to fill one out.
- FAFSA is free, but completing a CSS profile costs $25 for one school submission, and $16 for each additional school. In some instances the cost is waived.
- FAFSA considers a student’s need for federal aid, whereas CSS considers outside scholarship opportunities and the college’s own institutional aid opportunities.
- CSS takes a more detailed look at your household and business financials.
- 2024-25 FAFSA Guide: How to Fill Out the New FAFSA to Get the Aid You Deserve
- CSS Profile vs. FAFSA: What’s the Difference?
When Is the CSS Profile Due?
CSS applications open October 1. According to the College Board: “You should submit no later than two weeks before the EARLIEST priority filing date specified by your colleges.”
Importance of Meeting Deadlines
The timing of your CSS Profile submission can significantly impact your eligibility for financial aid. Adhering to these deadlines is critical, as late submissions may result in missed opportunities for financial aid. The College Board advises applicants to start the CSS Profile process early to ensure sufficient time for completion and submission ahead of deadlines.
Planning Around Maintenance Schedules
Applicants should also be aware of scheduled maintenance periods for the CSS Profile platform, which can affect application submission. For instance, the platform may be unavailable during specific hours for updates, as indicated on the College Board’s website. Being mindful of these maintenance schedules when planning your application submission is crucial to avoid last-minute complications. The College Board provides updated information on maintenance schedules and other important dates on the CSS Profile website, helping applicants ensure their applications are submitted on time.
CSS Profile: Going Through the Process
Go to the College Board CSS Profile Page and register. If you already have a College Board account, sign in using the same account credentials.
Keep in mind: You do not need to complete the entire application at one time.
What Information Is Needed to Fill Out the CSS Profile?
- Student and parent’s SSN or SIN numbers, if applicable
- Federal income tax return(s)
- W-2 forms and other record of money earned in the past two tax years
- Current bank statements
- Current mortgage information
- Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments
- The noncustodial parent’s email address, if applicable
Who Fills Out the Application?
According to the College Board: “To complete a CSS Profile application, you need a College Board student account. If you need to complete the CSS Profile as a parent (for example, as a noncustodial parent), you still need to create and use a student account. You just need to create a student account using the parent’s information.”
Be aware, says Lee, that you must create your own unique username and password, enter your own household financials, and include your spouse if you’ve remarried.
Filling out this paperwork involves entering a lot of important information that must be double-checked. It’s a good idea to sit side-by-side with your child and fill out the information together so you can both confirm the details.
How to Fill Out Required Student Information
Similar to the FAFSA application, the CSS profile requires detailed background information on the student. This in-depth profile requires more personal details, so make sure you and your child are on the same page when assessing this information.
Here’s what you will be asked:
- Student’s first name, last name, email address, phone number, date of birth, marital status, as well as optional information such as their preferred name, and College Board Financial Aid ID number.
- The country where the student lives, and their citizenship status.
- If the student has any legal dependents, whether they are currently or ever have been a ward of the court or in foster care, whether they are a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, if they are an emancipated minor, or if they are currently or at risk of being homeless.
- Parental information, including biological, adoptive, step-parents, or legal guardians.
- Household’s marital status. The Non-Custodial parent will receive an email invitation from the College Board to create their own account.
- The high school your student currently attends. Students who attended a private high school must include how much their parents paid in the 2022-2023 year, and any scholarship money they received.
Entering the Required Parent Information
In order to complete the CSS profile, you’ll need to begin filling out the parental background information for both parents.
In the case of a divorce or separation, some colleges require that the entire profile be filled out with both biological parents’ information. Participating schools list the specific requirements for each school. If you’re not in contact with a noncustodial parent, CSS offers an option to submit a waiver request.
Here’s what parents will be asked:
- Date of birth, social security number, email address, daytime phone number, state of residence, with an option to list their highest level of education completed.
- The option to list your employment status (employed by others, self-employed, unemployed, or retired), if you are a dislocated worker, your occupation/profession, your current employer and number of years employed. The only information you MUST enter is if you were, or are currently a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Entering Parental Tax Returns and Financial Information
Tax returns and parental information, such as benefits and income, must be included to complete the CSS profile. The CSS profile does not have an option to copy and paste or insert a copy of your tax returns, so you must enter the value of each section manually. Keep all of your documentation handy in order to double check the values. You’ll need to know/list:
- Any retirement plans and the total current value of those plans.
- Your tax returns from the past two years, and you must indicate the specific schedule of those forms.
- Your total income from the past two tax years.
- The amount you contributed to a deferred pension and retirement savings plans, your flexible spending amount for medical and dependent expenses, and your health savings account.
- Social Security benefits, any alimony you received, income from other members of the household, other living allowances (such as the amount received as a member of the military, clergy, or other profession), and any money you paid or gave on behalf of your child.
- Untaxed income, such as worker’s compensation, untaxed military service benefits, black lung benefits, refugee assistance, untaxed portion of railroad retirement benefits, and any other untaxed benefits.
- Expected income, taxable income, and benefits for this year. You will be asked whether this was drastically changed as a result of changes in employment.
- Any benefits that you or your dependents received.
- Housing details, including your monthly household payments, your home purchases per year, your home purchase price, the current market value, and the total amount owed on your home.
- Assets, including investments and their current market value, the current amount in cash, savings, checking, and deposit accounts, any real estate you own, and any businesses or farms you own.
- Additional expenses that you have, including Medicaid or dental expenses not covered by insurance, alimony, or payments on college loan debt.
- Dependents in your household.
Tip from Parents
One of our Paying for College 101 Facebook members shared this genius tip to help make filling out the CSS a bit easier: “Make a spreadsheet or document where you enter all of your account balances as of that date. My kid’s college has always asked for clarification of various numbers, and it is very hard to go back and figure them out later. For example, it will ask the total of each parent’s retirement accounts. If you have multiple accounts, document each of those balances for reference.”
Your child is also required to list their personal financial data for the CSS profile. A student will need their last income tax returns, as well as any W-2 forms, in order to complete this section. For students who didn’t file a tax return, they will list the income they made from work. Also:
- You’ll need to estimate your child’s expected earnings, taxed income, and benefits. You will have to fill out the estimated amount that your child receives from parents, scholarships, employers, and relatives.
- Although most students don’t have assets or investments, you’ll need to include the value of any stocks and stock options, uniform gifts to minors, certificates of deposits, non-qualified annuities, commodities, precious & strategic metals, and installments and land sale contracts.
- In the special circumstances segment, you can list any special circumstances that affected your family, such as changes in employment, or the COVID-19 pandemic. This is sent to ALL colleges your child applies to, and any information they’d like to share with a specific university should be sent to that school’s financial aid office.
Submitting Your CSS Profile
Costs to Submit and School Follow-Up Questions
Unlike FAFSA, the CSS profile is sent only to the schools you specify. Review the list of participating schools, and discuss with your child which schools they want to send it to. The cost is $25 for the first school and an extra $16 for each additional school. In some instances the cost is waived.
Once you’ve selected the schools you’d like to receive the CSS Profile, your child will be asked to answer supplemental questions required by the individual school. These questions may include:
- Class year. If this is their first, they will select that they are freshman.
- Their housing plans, and if they are choosing any early decision, early action, or regular decision plans.
- The courses or majors they’re interested in.
If any sections are left blank or any required documents aren’t attached, you will not be able to proceed until those areas are corrected.
Unlike FAFSA, the CSS profile doesn’t allow you to change things after you submit, so be extremely diligent in double checking all of your answers, making sure your credit card information is correct, and the correct schools to send it to are listed.
Be aware, it may take 5-7 days for the College Board to disperse this information. You can login anytime to the College Board to check the status of the application and receive any student portal links.
While the CSS process is more in-depth than FAFSA, it can provide more specific information that allows students and colleges to assess their financial situation.
The College Board features its own tutorial that walks you through the process.
And you can watch the video below for more details and background tips on filling out the CSS.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Filling Out the CSS Profile
When filling out the CSS Profile, it’s crucial to avoid common mistakes that can delay your application or affect your financial aid. Here are some key points to consider:
- Applying for the Wrong Academic Year: Make sure to select the correct academic year for which you are seeking aid.
- Inaccurate Information: Typos or incorrect details, especially in critical fields like Social Security numbers, can cause significant processing issues.
- Confusion Between Student and Parent Information: Ensure that student and parent information is correctly placed in their respective sections to avoid confusion.
- Misunderstanding Divorced or Separated Parent Requirements: The CSS Profile may require information from both parents, even if they are divorced or separated. The College Board offers guidance for these situations, emphasizing the importance of following their detailed instructions for divorced or separated parents, including scenarios where the noncustodial parent is not in contact.
Special Circumstances to Report on the CSS Profile
The CSS Profile allows you to provide detailed information about special circumstances affecting your financial situation. If your family has undergone significant financial changes, such as a recent job loss, medical expenses, or other financial challenges, these should be detailed in the application. The CSS Profile gives you the opportunity to provide a fuller picture of your financial situation beyond what the FAFSA covers, including any special circumstances you are experiencing.
Tips for a Smooth CSS Profile Submission Process
For a smoother CSS Profile submission process, consider the following tips:
- Gather Financial Documents Early: Collect all necessary documents, such as tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, and records of investments, before starting your application. This preparation can help streamline the process.
- Understand the Cost: The initial application fee for the CSS Profile is $25, with each additional report costing $16. However, fee waivers are available for families with an adjusted gross income of up to $100,000, students who qualify for an SAT fee waiver, or orphans and wards of the court under the age of 24.
- Check School Requirements: Over 400 colleges and universities use the CSS Profile, and it’s essential to check whether your intended schools require it. Each institution sets its own deadline, which can vary widely, so it’s important to verify these dates directly with each school.
FAQ on the CSS Profile
- Is the CSS Profile worth the effort for middle-income families?
Yes, middle-income families often benefit significantly from the CSS Profile, as it can unlock institutional aid tailored to a wider range of financial situations than federal aid alone.
- How do I decide whether to apply through the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA?
Consider applying through the CSS Profile if you’re targeting institutions that require it for non-federal aid. It’s especially beneficial for those seeking additional scholarships and grants that consider more nuanced financial details.
- Can international students fill out the CSS Profile?
Absolutely, international students are encouraged to complete the CSS Profile to qualify for non-federal financial aid from participating institutions in the U.S.
- What’s the best way to prepare for the detailed financial questions on the CSS Profile?
Gather financial documents early, including tax returns, bank statements, and records of investments. Having these documents on hand can simplify the process of answering the CSS Profile’s in-depth questions.
- How frequently is the CSS Profile updated, and how does this affect applicants?
The CSS Profile is updated annually to reflect changes in financial aid practices and policies. Applicants should ensure they’re working with the most current version to provide accurate information.
- What should I do if my financial situation changes drastically after submitting the CSS Profile?
Contact the financial aid offices of the colleges you’ve applied to directly. They can guide you on how to report significant changes that could affect your aid eligibility.
- Are there common errors to avoid when entering financial information?
Yes, common errors include underreporting income, overestimating expenses, and misunderstanding the definitions of assets and liabilities. Double-check entries and consult the guidelines carefully.
- How do colleges use the CSS Profile information differently than FAFSA data?
Colleges use CSS Profile information to award their own institutional grants and scholarships with a more nuanced understanding of a family’s financial situation, including factors like home equity and non-custodial parent contributions.
- Can noncustodial parents be exempt from providing information on the CSS Profile?
In cases where contacting a noncustodial parent is not possible or appropriate, you may request a waiver for the noncustodial parent’s information requirement. Each school’s financial aid office handles these requests on a case-by-case basis.
- How can I check the status of my CSS Profile submission?
After submitting, you can check the status of your CSS Profile through your College Board account. This platform will indicate if your application is complete or if additional information is needed.
Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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