The Other Financial Aid Form: CSS Profile

Besides completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, about 400 colleges and universities require another, even more detailed, financial form called the College Scholarship Service or CSS Profile. If you thought the FAFSA was challenging, you haven’t seen anything until you meet the CSS profile form. A private worksheet for the CSS profile provided by TuitionCoach that explains the questions on the CSS is 20 pages long, so expect a rather long, grueling experience in filing the CSS profile.

The good news is that only 400 or so private colleges and universities require the CSS, so check with all the colleges on your list to see if you’ll even need to file this form. You may be one of the lucky millions of students who do not. If you’re shooting for one of the Ivies or any of the elite private colleges, however, you will have to endure the CSS. College Board, which runs the College Scholarship Service, provides a list of the colleges that require the form, but always check with each college individually. Colleges join up or drop off the CSS program and it is tough to keep the list up to date. Do your due diligence and check your college’s financial aid office Web page. You will need each college’s deadline for CSS and other forms to be filed anyway, and checking the college’s financial aid office page is your best bet for finding out if the CSS is required.

Mostly, it is only expensive, elite private colleges that use the CSS to get a more detailed and refined picture of a family’s financial situation. These colleges tend to provide a great deal of money to students they want attending their school, which is why they ask for the information revealed in the CSS. Filing the CSS for these schools has its pros and cons. The good is that a truly needy student could receive a lot more money from the college than she would have through the FAFSA alone. The bad is that the CSS looks at a family’s home equity and retirement accounts, which the FAFSA doesn’t take into consideration. Just as a student could gain a lot more in financial aid from filing the CSS profile, other students could be offered less money because of their family’s equity in the home or other assets.

Filing the CSS can be done on a printed form or online, just as with the FAFSA. Either way, register at College Board’s CSS Financial Aid Profile page at least two weeks before your college’s scholarship priority deadline date. If many of the colleges you’ll be applying to require the CSS, then once you’ve completed the form, you can have College Board send the information to each of the schools you list.

Another CSS bummer is that filing the CSS profile costs $25 plus $16 for each school you list to receive the information. However, you don’t have to fill out the form more than once, and the same information will be forwarded to each school you request.

Tips on Filing the CSS

To register for the CSS profile, you can start by creating an online account at College Board. While it isn’t necessary for registering for the CSS, the College Board account can help in your college search, save all your searches, register you for the SAT and search for scholarships, so it is probably worthwhile to get an account.

Once you register for the CSS, the online form will gather enough information from you to determine if you tax status is dependent on your parents or if you’re an independent student. Answers to other questions allows College Board to provide you with a customized CSS profile form so you’ll only have to answer questions that pertain to you. The customized form will let you know if colleges and scholarships you’re applying to require answers additional questions specific to the college or if a non-custodial parent profile is needed as well if your parent’s are divorced.

Good Points about the CSS

A couple of nice things about filing the CSS profile online:

  • The online help system and the FAQ is extensive and covers nearly everything.
  • Live customer service is available for help in filling out the form.
  • Provides alerts if there is missing or incorrect information.
  • Handy text box near the end of the form allows you to explain in greater detail about extenuating circumstances such as huge medical bills, divorce, a lost job or a death in the family.

Bad Points about the CSS

  • It charges a fee to file and another fee to send it to the colleges that require it.
  • The CSS is much longer and far more detailed than the FAFSA because the CSS asks about every detail of your family’s financial situation, asking a lot of questions income streams that the FAFSA doesn’t consider. It considers everything from retirement accounts and life insurance plans to the car you drive and other various assets.
  • Besides the CSS profile itself, the colleges on your list may also ask additional questions or require extra forms to be completed. The colleges that use the CSS profile often hand out millions of dollars to incoming students in the form of financial aid packages, based on both need and merit, so the colleges require a great deal of detailed information.
  • The CSS profile has earlier deadlines than the FAFSA. The FAFSA’s deadline is June 1, although you can fill out the form beginning on January 1 and the earlier the better. The CSS Profile deadline is November 15 the year before you’ll be attending college for early decision and early action admission students and February 1 for regular admission students. Check the deadlines for FAFSA and CSS profile at each school you’ll be applying to and get the forms filed as soon as possible. Financial aid decisions are often made on a first come first served basis, so you really want to be the early bird to get the biggest, juiciest financial aid worm.

In summary, check with all the colleges on your list to determine if they require the CSS profile and be sure and find out the deadline for these important financial forms. If any of the colleges on your list requires the CSS form, gather up all the information you’ll need, register for the CSS and get to work. Chances are filing the CSS will help provide a real boost in financial aid for your college education. It may be a long and detailed form to file, but it could be worth thousands of dollars to you and your family. Go for it.

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