What Is the CSS Profile for Financial Aid?

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The CSS Profile is a non-federal application for college grants and scholarships. The profile is required by roughly 400 colleges and universities, most of which are private. Any college that requires the CSS Profile also requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Key Takeaways: The CSS Profile

  • The CSS Profile is an application for non-federal financial aid (such as institutional grant aid).
  • Approximately 400 colleges and universities require the CSS Profile. Most are selective private institutions with expensive tuitions and significant financial aid resources.
  • The CSS Profile is a more detailed form than the FAFSA. However, any college that requires the CSS Profile also requires the FAFSA.
  • The CSS Profile is typically due on or around the admission application deadline. Be sure to submit it on time or early in order to ensure your financial aid application is processed.

What Is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is a financial aid application used by approximately 400 colleges. The application provides a holistic portrait of financial need so that non-federal financial aid (such as institutional grant aid) can be awarded accordingly. Unlike the FAFSA, which is based on just a few income and savings data points, the CSS Profile considers current and future expenses that aren't always captured by tax documents.

The CSS Profile is a product of the College Board. To fill out the CSS profile, you'll use the same log-in information you created for the PSAT, SAT, or AP.

Information Collected by the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile overlaps with the FAFSA when it comes to income and savings. The student—and their family, if the student is a dependent—will need to submit personal identification information, income information from both employers and personal businesses, and non-retirement savings from bank accounts, 529 plans, and other investments.

Additional information required for the CSS Profile includes:

  • Your current high school and the colleges to which you'll apply
  • Your home value and the amount you owe on your home
  • Your retirement savings
  • Child support information
  • Sibling information
  • Expected earnings for the coming year
  • Information about any special circumstances that may not be reflected in the prior year's tax forms (such as a loss in income, exceptional medical expenses, and eldercare expenses)
  • Contributions towards college from anyone other than the student's parents

The final section of the CSS Profile includes questions that are specific to the schools to which you are applying. Much like supplemental essays on the Common Application, this section allows colleges to ask questions that aren't covered by the standard part of the application. These questions might be used be schools for calculating grant aid, or they might be geared towards specific scholarships available at the school.

Keep in mind that some colleges require an additional step. About a quarter of all schools that require the CSS Profile also require students to submit tax and income information through IDOC, the Institutional Documentation Service. IDOC typically requires you to scan and submit your federal tax return, including W-2 and 1099 records.

When to Submit the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile, like the FAFSA, is available for the next school year beginning on October 1st. If you're applying to a college through an Early Action or Early Decision program, you'll want to complete the profile in October (possibly early November) to make sure you can be considered for financial aid when your application is evaluated.

In general, the CSS Profile will be due on or near the same date that the college application is due. Don't put off completing the profile or you might be jeopardizing your financial aid award. Also, keep in mind that it can take a couple weeks for all of the CSS Profile information to reach colleges once you submit the document. The College Board recommends that applicants submit the CSS Profile at least two weeks before their earliest application deadline.

Time Required to Complete the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is said to take between 45 minutes and 2 hours to complete. The reality, however, is that it will take several additional hours to gather the necessary documents, including tax returns, savings and invest account information, mortgage information, health and dental payment records, 529 balances, and more.

If both the parents and the student have income and savings, the profile will take longer to complete. Similarly, families with numerous sources of income, multiple residential properties, and contributions from outside the family will have more information to enter into the CSS Profile. Parents who are divorced or separated will also have a less stream-lined experience with the profile.

Keep in mind that you do not need to complete the CSS Profile in one sitting. Your answers can be saved regularly, and you can return to the form without losing your progress.

Cost of the CSS Profile

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is not free. Applicants will need to pay a $25 fee to set up the profile, and another $16 for each school that will receive the profile. Fee waivers are available for students who qualified for SAT fee waivers.

If you're planning to apply to a school through an Early Action or Early Decision program, you can save some money by submitting the CSS Profile to your early application school first, and then adding other colleges to your profile only if you don't get into your top-choice school early.

Schools That Require the CSS Profile

Roughly 400 colleges and universities require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. Most CSS Profile participants are selective private colleges and universities with high tuition fees. They also tend to be schools with significant financial aid resources. The CSS Profile allows these institutions to determine a family's financial need with greater precision than is possible with the FAFSA.

Participating institutions include most of the Ivy League Schools, top liberal arts colleges such as Williams College and Pomona College, top engineering schools such as MIT and Caltech, and other highly selective private universities such as Stanford University and Northwestern University. A few scholarship programs also require the CSS Profile.

You'll find that a handful of public universities such as Georgia Tech, UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan use the CSS Profile.

Not all colleges find that the CSS Profile serves their needs, and a few top schools have created their own financial aid applications rather than using the College Board's product. Princeton University, for example, requires the Princeton Financial Aid Application as well as copies of the parents' federal income tax return and W-2 statements.

Please note: if you are not applying for financial aid, you will not need to fill out the CSS Profile for any school.

A Final Word About the CSS Profile

As college application deadlines approach, most students are entirely focused on writing essays and making their applications as strong as possible. Realize, however, that you (and/or your parents) need to be working on financial aid applications at the same time. Getting into college is important, but being able to pay for it is equally important. When the FAFSA and CSS Profile go live in October, don't procrastinate. Completing them early can help guarantee you'll get full consideration for all available grants and scholarships.