The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is generally understood by applicants and their families to be the most important step in financing a college education. Using a strict formula, the federal government uses the FAFSA application to award Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans, and Federal Work-Study jobs to families that present a financial need.
Often less understood is the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile), a form that appears almost identical to the FAFSA, but is capable of opening up the scholarship vaults of many private colleges and universities. Nearly 300 institutions require the CSS Profile which gives applicants the chance to receive private, institutional-based funding on top of the government-backed funding provided by the FAFSA.
It’s not free!
Unlike the FAFSA, which comes gratis, care of the federal government, you actually have to pay for each CSS Profile submission. Your first Profile can be sent for $25 — each subsequent submission will cost you $16. You may feel a twinge of annoyance, but trust us, this is a small price to pay given the potential rewards that await at the end of the rainbow.
Dishearteningly, this is another thing families must add to their seemingly endless college to-do list. Fortunately, filling out the online form typically takes parents somewhere between 45 minutes and two hours. Yes, this wide range is akin to a football prognosticator saying that a team will win somewhere between 3 and 13 games, but how long the CSS Profile takes someone is entirely dependent on the level of complexity of their personal finances. A self-employed individual with complex real estate holdings, diversified retirement accounts, and extensive medical bills in going to be sitting in front of the computer much longer than an individual employed by a corporation and possessing straightforward assets.
Telling the whole story
The FAFSA is an effective tool for the dispersal of aid to lower-income families. Yet, many financial aid officers prefer the wider window into a family’s actual financial state of affairs that is provided by the CSS Profile. As a result, families may find that the questions about their financial lives are far more invasive than those on the FAFSA. This is due to the fact that the CSS Profile allows schools to apply their own Institutional Methodology. Questions may arise on topics and other financial matters that are likewise outside the purview of the FAFSA.
To prepare, we recommend having records handy on the following, in addition to basic tax records also required for the FAFSA: family medical costs, retirement accounts, detailed business records (for the self-employed), life insurance policies, mortgage information for calculation of home equity, and any other investment information (stocks, bonds, etc.).
The deadlines for the CSS Profile tend to be on the early side — not the operative word — deadlines with an “s.”
For example, Early Decision candidates at Tufts face a November 15th deadline to submit their CSS Profile. At NYU, Early Decision candidates have an extra day until November 16th, and ED applicants to William & Mary have almost an extra month, until December 12th. Meanwhile, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the ED deadline for CSS submission is November 1st. The lesson here is that, unlike with the FAFSA, the deadlines for submission vary greatly school by school and you need to track school-specific information down online.
We recommend that the CSS Profile be filed at least two weeks before your school’s earliest priority filing date. In line with the new FAFSA deadline, the CSS Profile can be submitted starting on October 1st. Most Regular Admission deadlines for the Profile fall in February, but again, check your prospective schools’ websites for the particulars.
Consider taking a break from early-leaf collection and gourd procurement to fill out this CSS Profile. The earlier you finish the task, the better. The CSS Profile may seem more like the financial version of a colonoscopy versus the more mild check-up feel of the FAFSA, but the process is necessary if you will need assistance to attend some of the top colleges and universities in the United States.