When it comes to applying for financial aid, most schools and the federal government use the FAFSA to figure out their award packages. But some schools, around 250 to be more exact, use the CSS Profile, which was created by the College Board and looks at student aid from a different perspective. If you’re applying to one of those schools, you’ll need to know how to approach the questions to get as much financial aid as possible.
Are the FAFSA and the CSS Profile Similar?
Before we dive into specifics, let’s go over the similarities and differences between the CSS Profile and the FAFSA. For starters, both forms ask for financial information and use it to determine student aid eligibility. Plus, both are online forms and both are sent to the schools you choose.
But there are 7 major differences between the forms that you should keep in mind:
1. The Issuer. The federal government handles all things FAFSA while the College Board (the same organization responsible for AP classes and the SAT) is in charge of the CSS Profile.
2. The Cost. The FAFSA is always free, but the CSS Profile isn’t. As of 2018, the fee for the application and one school is $25 plus $16 for each additional school. When applying, low-income students are automatically considered for fee waivers.
3. The Financial Section. The financial section of the CSS Profile is more comprehensive than the FAFSA. You’ll be asked more about things like non-custodial parent income (if your parents are divorced), home equity, medical expenses, non-qualified annuities, and the value of small family businesses. Student assets are also weighed heavier. We’ll give you more info on all of this down below.
4. The Methodology. Each form approaches financial aid in a different way. The FAFSA uses Federal Methodology, which considers parental gross income as the main factor for aid eligibility. The CSS Profile uses “Institutional Methodology”, which takes a more rounded look at a student’s financial situation, looking at factors such as home value, non-custodial parent income, and medical expenses. The CSS Profile also considers special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for school.
5. The Flexibility. With the FAFSA, financial aid is determined by a set formula without any room for human interpretation. In other words, the FAFSA is based solely on the Federal Methodology formula. The CSS Profile, on the other hand, allows more room for professional opinions and colleges have their own formulas for interpreting it. More specifically, college financial aid offices have more freedom and say in the amount of financial aid that a student receives.
6. The Use. The FAFSA is the only form used for federal aid, such as Pell grants, federal loans, and work-study, and most schools also use it to decide their institutional financial aid packages. The CSS Profile, on the other hand, is used only for institutional aid at around 250 colleges and universities.
7. The Questions. The FAFSA has the same questions for all students while the CSS Profile customizes the questions that students see depending on their answers in the registration phase.
Now, let’s dive into the specifics for how to fill out the College Board CSS Profile.
1. Take Out Your Calendar
Before you even start, get an idea of the submission deadlines for the schools you’re applying to. Hint: most deadlines are between January 1st and March 31st.
2. Gather Your Documents
To make completing the CSS Profile easier, get your documents together before you start filling it out. You’ll need the following documents for yourself and, if you’re a dependent, for your parents as well:
-Last year’s tax returns
-W-2s and income records from both this year and last year
-Records of untaxed income for this year and last year
-Records of savings, stocks, bonds, and trusts
-Info on small businesses and other assets
3. Create a College Board Account/Register
Before you start the form, you’ll need to create an account. If you took the SAT, you likely already have one. Either way, head over here to sign in or sign up. Then, follow these steps:
1. First, you’ll need to provide basic information like your name, email, date of birth, and permanent address. The section also asks for your social security number, but it’s optional. Next, you’ll be asked about your year in school and which school you’re attending.
Keep in mind that even if you’ve taken AP courses for college credit or a few classes at a community college, you can still select that you’ve never attended college before. As a general rule, only students who have been enrolled at least half-time in a college program are considered to have attended college in the past.
2. After providing that information, the registration phase will take you through some questions to determine your dependency status. The “Student Expected Resources” section asks questions about the financial help that you expect to receive from family and your own income. Your answers to these questions will determine whether you see questions for dependent or independent students while filling out the form.
3. The next step of registration is the “College and Program Search” which is where you choose the schools you want the form sent to. Unlike the FAFSA, you should take some time to carefully think about which schools will receive your CSS Profile since there’s a cost involved.
Send it to each school that you’re applying to, but make sure that the school actually requires the form. If you can’t find it in the search then it probably doesn’t. You’ll also be asked housing information for each school, so be sure to check and see if there’s an on-campus housing policy for freshmen.
4. Lastly, you’ll need to provide information about your parents’ marital status, finances, home, employment, etc. Again, all of the questions in this step will determine the questions you’ll see on the form.
After you’ve completed the registration step, you’ll have access to the pre-application worksheet, which will show you the questions you’ll see on the form. If it helps, print the sheet out and feel free to make notes on it.
4. Parent Data (if dependent)
If you qualify as a dependent, you’ll need to fill out the Parent Data section, which is the first part of the official form. Keep in mind that you can save and continue at any time as well as jump between sections. If you need help, there are question buttons throughout the form with more information. If you need extra help, contact the College Board.
First, you’ll need to fill in the data for your first parent. The form will ask for basic information, including employment data and retirement plan information. After that, you’ll provide the exact same information for your second parent if applicable.
When asked about the number of people in your household, always include yourself. When asked about the number of people in your house who will be attending college, don’t include your parents even if they are.
This section also covers any public assistance plans that your family is involved with.
Note: Many people get confused about the question asking if your parent is a “dislocated worker”. The purple question mark provides more in-depth information about what exactly defines someone as a dislocated worker.
5. Parent Income & Benefits (if dependent)
Next, you’ll move on to parent income and benefits, the longest section of the CSS Profile. Having a copy of your recent federal income tax return will speed up the process. Each question gives you the exact line number where you can find the information on your return. If you don’t have it on hand, you can enter estimates rather than the exact dollar amount.
The first part of this section is about the previous year’s income and the second is about the year before that so that financial aid advisors can see if your family is going through major financial changes from year to year. The third section goes on to asks about your expected income for the following year. If there are any big changes coming up or currently happening in your life that will have a significant impact on your ability to pay for school, you can mention them later on in the “Special Circumstances” section.
6. Parent Asset Section (if dependent)
The next section is the Parent Asset section. You’ll find questions about assets in your parents’ names and also in your siblings’ names, such as college savings plans. You’ll see questions about investments, current home value, and how much money your parents owe on their home as well.
Note: home equity has been a huge topic of debate and confusion on the CSS Profile. Some schools don’t consider home equity at all, or don’t weigh it very heavily, while others consider it to be a major factor.
Most schools will cap home equity value at double the family income. So, as an example, if family income is $80,000 and the home equity value is $500,000, the school will only value the home equity at $160,000 when calculating Expected Family Contribution. Then, most schools will count 5% of the home equity value towards what the family is expected to pay for school. In this case, 5% of $160,000 is $8,000. Therefore, $8,000 is added to your EFC.
However, a select number of schools use the full value of your home equity. In this case, 5% of $500,000 is $25,000, which would greatly affect your eligibility for student aid.
Additionally, since student assets are generally valued higher than parent assets on the CSS Profile, it might be helpful to switch assets from a student’s name to a parent’s name before filling out the form.
7. Parents’ Expenses (if dependent)
This section is used to determine if parents have any unusual or extra expenses that haven’t been covered in previous sections, including child support, educational loans, out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses, and educational expenses for other children.
Other examples of extra expenses are elementary or high school tuition for the previous or upcoming year and monthly home mortgage or rental payments.
8. Student Data Section
Now that the parent section is done, it’s time to move on to the student section. This part will begin by asking you about the high school, college, or university that you’re currently attending as well as your year in school.
You’ll also be asked some financial questions, including the scholarships and grants that you’ve been awarded and how much your parents have paid for your education so far (if applicable). There are also a number of questions related to dependency status, such as whether you’re in danger of homelessness, have ever been a part of the foster care system, or have ever participated in the Upward Bound program.
The Income & Benefits area contains questions about your tax return from the previous year and the financial help you expect to receive for the following school year. Other questions range from veteran benefits to income to expected parent contribution. With the last point, feel free to use a conservative (but realistic) estimate if you’re not sure of the exact amount.
9. Student Assets
Similar to the Parent Asset section, this section asks about assets that are in the student’s name. Remember that, unlike the FAFSA, student assets are generally valued higher with the CSS Profile.
In this section, you should list the amount of cash in your bank accounts, retirement accounts, and investment funds. Don’t be alarmed if most of your answers are “0” in this section since students usually don’t have many, if any, assets in their name.
10. Family Member Listing – Parent’s Household
This section goes over the additional people living in your household besides you and your parents, such as siblings. You’ll be asked to list educational and other expenses for these people that your parents are responsible for paying.
11. Explanation & Special Circumstances
This is your chance to explain anything you’d like in further detail. You have up to 2,000 characters to describe special financial circumstances or anything that you feel will negatively affect your financial aid eligibility when it shouldn’t. Some examples of special circumstances include dramatic shifts in income and debt recovery.
12. Supplemental Questions
Schools can choose to ask additional questions specific to their institution at the end of the CSS Profile. Depending on which schools you’re applying to, you might not see this section at all. The specific questions asked depend on the school.
13. Pay the Fee or Get it for Free
Students are automatically considered for fee waivers when filling out the CSS Profile. Waivers generally include the $25 application fee plus the cost of sending the form to up to 8 schools. Students normally qualify if they’re an incoming freshman and annual family income is $40,000 or less. Some schools also provide fee waivers for students by giving them a code to enter at the end of the application.
If you don’t qualify for a waiver, you’ll need to pay the $25 fee before submitting the application. The first school is included in the fee, but each additional school is $16.
14. Double Check & Submit
Make sure to double check your form before you submit it since you won’t be able to make any changes online afterward. If you do make a mistake and need to correct it, you’ll have to print out the application summary form, make corrections, and then fax, email, or mail it to your school’s financial aid office.
After you submit it, you can get an idea of your aid package by using this EFC calculator. Keep in mind that your actual award might be different.
15. Submit It Every Year
Just like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile needs to be completed and submitted every year, so keep an eye out for deadlines!
Have additional questions about completing the CSS Profile? Let us know below!