Advertiser Disclosure

Learn the CSS Profile, the ‘Other’ Financial Aid Application

Feb. 16, 2016
Loans, Student Loans
Learn the CSS Profile, the 'Other' Financial Aid Application
Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

By Brett Tushingham

Learn more about Brett on NerdWallet’s Ask An Advisor 

Most families with college students are very familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA form determines your eligibility for need-based financial aid that is based on students’ and parents’ income and assets.

All colleges that offer federal student aid require students to complete the FAFSA. Some schools, however, believe that the FAFSA lacks the necessary information to assess a family’s ability to pay for college. A growing number of them require that an additional application be submitted so that they can make their own determination of eligibility for nonfederal aid.

That application, called the CSS Profile, assesses the income and assets of a family quite differently from the FAFSA. The result could be a dramatically different Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which is the minimal amount that your child will be expected to contribute toward education costs.

Before you get too upset about having to complete another aid application, remember the potential benefits. Schools that use the CSS Profile — there are now nearly 300 of them nationwide — have millions of dollars in institutional, nonfederal aid to award, which usually comes in the form of scholarships. This is quite different from student loans received through the FAFSA process, which have to be paid back and, with interest, will ultimately increase your child’s tuition costs.

>> MORE: How to refinance your student loans

Keep in mind that the two applications work together. Filling out both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, for schools that require it, offers a more well-rounded financial picture that will give you full consideration for financial aid.

Here are some key things to know about the CSS, so that you can take complete advantage of aid opportunities.

How do I know if it applies to me?

When applying to schools, students should check the aid section of each college’s admissions materials in order to find out which aid applications are required. If the CSS Profile is required, parents will need to register at the College Board website and complete the application on the Profile site. The CSS Profile can be filed as early as Oct. 1 each year.

Who requires it?

CSS Profile schools are generally selective private schools such as those in the Ivy League and a few flagship state schools such as the University of North Carolina and University of Michigan. These schools have their own “institutional” methodology for assessing the aid eligibility of students.

There are an additional 23 schools making up the 568 Presidents’ Group, an ad hoc collection of college and university presidents, that also require the CSS Profile but use their own “consensus” methodology to determine financial aid. It assesses assets differently from the CSS institutional methodology. It is important for families to understand before applying to a school what aid methodology it uses, as it might affect their EFC and ultimately the amount of aid the student receives.

How is CSS different from FAFSA?

Here are some examples of how financial aid is calculated differently under the FAFSA and CSS Profile:

  • Family-owned and family-controlled small businesses (fewer than 100 employees) and home equity on a primary residence don’t count as an asset for aid calculations under the FAFSA, but they do on the CSS Profile.
  • Student assets are given 20% weight under the FAFSA when calculating a student’s Expected Family Contribution but can range from 5% to 25% on the CSS Profile. The CSS Profile schools believed that the FAFSA did not accurately measure a family’s “true” ability to pay for school, so they established their own criteria.
  • Gifts made to parents (such as by grandparents who want to help with college costs) are not considered “income” under the FAFSA but they are under the CSS Profile and given weight of up to 46%.

Remember that the CSS Profile collects much more information than the FAFSA, which gives financial aid counselors greater freedom to grant aid based on a student’s particular circumstances, such as if a parent recently lost a job or had a health issue that’s expected to cause substantial medical expenses.

Depending on the school, a student’s Expected Family Contribution could actually be much lower under the CSS than for the FAFSA. That could mean eligibility for more aid, and having more of that need met with scholarship money as opposed to loans. It’s important to plan and gain a clear understanding of each school’s aid methodology before applying or excluding it from your wish list.

College admissions is a challenging process for students and parents, and the financial issues involved only increase the difficulties. That’s why it’s a good idea to carefully explore whether your child is eligible for money under the CSS Profile. A proactive college planning strategy can give you that answer.

Brett Tushingham is managing member and chief operating officer of Tushingham Wealth Strategies.

Image via iStock.