An Overview of the CSS Profile Form for Financial Aid

Should you use this to apply for non-federal financial aid?

Mother and daughter filling out CSS form
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When it comes to applying for financial aid, the CSS PROFILE form is often confused with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). While there are many differences between the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA, the main difference is that they are used to apply for different types of financial aid. If you want to receive federal financial aid or federal student loans, you have to complete the FAFSA.

The CSS (College Scholarship Service) PROFILE, on the other hand, is used to apply online for nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges, universities, professional schools, and scholarship programs. It goes into somewhat more depth on your financial background than the FAFSA does.

Key Dates and Fees

The CSS PROFILE is a service of the College Board. It comes online on October 1 for the following academic year. It uses prior-prior-year (PPY) income tax information. For the 2020–21 application, this means that you will be able to utilize information from your 2018 federal income tax returns. Having your tax returns on hand will help you quickly complete the form, but be prepared to provide income estimates for 2019 and 2020 to provide a complete picture of your financial situation.

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free to complete, the CSS PROFILE form costs $25 to create and submit to one school. Additional schools cost $16 per submission. A limited amount of fee waivers are available for students who are orphans, those who come from low-income families, and similar situations of financial hardship. Since the CSS PROFILE form only covers a certain group of schools, you should be sure it is required before you spend the time and money to apply. Have the information submitted only to the schools that you want to attend.

Some colleges may also have their own separate financial aid applications. Check the list of requirements for each school you may apply to, and also be sure to pay close attention to their admission deadlines. It is usually recommended that you try to submit the PROFILE at least two weeks before your school’s financial aid deadline, just to leave yourself additional time to fix errors, omissions, or any other complications that arise after your initial submission.

Eligibility

Whereas federal financial aid is calculated based on a strict formula across all students nationwide, the CSS PROFILE form allows colleges to use unique criteria to calculate aid eligibility for their own programs. Hence, the questions on one school’s CSS PROFILE may vary dramatically from those of another school.

Because the CSS PROFILE form is for non-federal or private scholarships, grants, and financial aid programs, the schools are permitted to consider other factors not considered on the FAFSA form. These include items such as the value of a parent’s home, the income of a non-custodial parent, insurance contract values, and annual retirement plan contributions. Take advantage of the pre-application worksheet, which can help in determining what information will be requested and what documentation to gather.

Completing the Form

To complete the CSS PROFILE, take the following steps:

  • Gather information: Pull together financial information including tax returns, information on temporary assistance or Supplemental Security Income, W2 forms, bank statements, mortgage information, and records of untaxed information. It is a lot to do, but these are many of the same documents that are required to complete the FAFSA, so you'll have to gather the information eventually.
  • Register: Visit the College Board website and register for the CSS PROFILE. Your application is tailored to your family situation and the colleges or programs you select. You can securely save your application and return to complete it at any time.
  • Complete the application: Follow the customized Pre-Application Worksheet provided, as it will help you complete the PROFILE. As you answer questions, the system will automatically provide online help and edits to minimize mistakes.
  • Submit the application: You will be able to pay online and will receive an online acknowledgment of your application. Read the acknowledgment carefully to see if there are any additional steps you must take.

Some schools that accept the CSS Profile will use the College Board's verification service, IDOC (Institutional Documentation Service). The student will receive an email from the College Board about this next step.

Article Sources

  1. College Board. "CSS Profile Student Guide." Accessed Nov. 19, 2019.

  2. College Board. "Fee Waivers." Accessed Nov. 19, 2019.