Jason Flurry, CFP
Understanding the CSS Profile
How to breeze your way to getting TONS of FREE MONEY for college
In a previous article I discussed the various components that go into determining your expected family contribution and why understanding them I had of time can make filing for financial aid through the FAFSA form easier and more productive. That article dealt with the federal formula colleges use to determine financial aid awards.
In this article, I’m going to be discussing the institutional method many colleges use when determining how much of their own money they’re going to use to meet your financial needs. In most cases this institutional process is done through a form called the CSS Profile. You can access the form online and it’s managed by College Board. You’ll simply use the same login information your kids established when they registered for the SAT or the PSAT. And like the FAFSA, this form has a lot of personal and financial information that each college will require in order to consider you for their institutional funds.
The FAFSA typically has 100 - 120 questions or so on it. There are 74 criteria that go into determining your share of the college bill and with that much rope around your feet, it’s easy to get tripped up and not even realize it. The CSS Profile has all of the FAFSA questions on it plus a lot more. There can be 200 - 250 questions on the CSS Profile depending on which schools you attached to it. And unlike FAFSA where several areas like your retirement balances, your home equity, and your business value is protected, very little is protected all the CSS Profile.
The invasion of the Financial Aid Officers Colleges that use this form will dig much deeper than those who only use the FAFSA. They will ask about your retirement plan balances. They can’t do anything about them – they’re just nosy. They will ask about what kinds of cars you drive, how much you paid for them, and how much you still owe on them. They will ask about your home equity, when you purchased your home, what you paid for it, what you still owe on it, and how much your mortgage payment is. They often even ask if you have a second mortgage or an equity line on your home in addition to your primary mortgage.
Some of these colleges will add supplementary questions to the CSS Profile that ask where you go to church, what memberships you have and how much you pay in dues, and if you have any additional money saved in other children’s names in addition to the student you’re applying for financial aid with them now.
If you’re self-employed, or have a business on the side, the CSS Profile will ask you about it. They want to know how much of the company you own, what percentage of the income and expenses you’re responsible for, and what the business is worth. Within their institutional formula, they can and do often impute value from your business and your home equity as they try to determine your financial aid eligibility. That can make a huge difference in your expected family contribution pending on your situation.
A real life example I was reading on Middlebury College’s financial aid website recently and saw where in addition to using the overabundance of questions on the CSS Profile to evaluate what you have and what you make, they also take into consideration what you’re borrowing capacity is when determining how much to award families in the area of need-based aid. Once they determine what your institutional expected family contribution is, they usually meet 100% of it with free money. But keep in mind that they get to determine what they think you can afford to pay for college as a result of all of the information you provide on the CSS Profile. Their idea of what’s affordable may be very different than yours, and they’re not alone in the way that they make those determinations. Many colleges who use the CSS Profile have similar financial aid policies. That’s why it’s important you understand what’s on this form and know how you’re going to look through their eyes in advance so that you can get the best results possible.
Colleges are businesses If you haven’t yet figured out that colleges are businesses and that you’re their customer, this is usually the point in the process where you begin to see things for what they truly are. You also come to the cruel realization that the financial aid officer, who has the words “financial aid” in his or her title, is NOT there to give you financial aid. That person works for the company and their primary job is to go through all of the information that you sent them so they can suggest ways for you to pay their bill out of your own resources.
If you can demonstrate to them that you truly do have a legitimate financial need, they have the keys to the colleges fault and they can be surprisingly generous in lowering your out-of-pocket costs at their university. You just have to do your homework advance and plan carefully so that you don’t overstate your ability to pay and lose out on free money that would’ve been, and should have been, yours otherwise.
The CSS Profile is a very complicated, time-consuming project and you want to make sure you don’t make mistakes before you submit it. While you can go back in online and amend FAFSA to correct errors will make adjustments, you can’t amend the CSS Profile online. You have to print a hard copy, which I’ve found is usually somewhere between 15 and 19 pages long. Then mark up any changes that are needed on that form and send it individually to each college who needs to receive the update. On FAFSA, when you make a change, everyone who’s invited to the form sees it automatically. With the CSS Profile. You have to manage these changes individually and manually.
Why suffer? It would seem that if the CSS Profile is so difficult, why even bother applying to colleges who use it? I can tell you why – it’s because these colleges tend to be the most generous in the way they award money. Knowing what they’re going to look at ahead of time and making any necessary preparations to protect your resources before you file, can qualify you for some very impressive financial aid awards. In fact, many of our clients have received free money in the form of grants totaling over $50,000 per year as a result of us helping them navigate the CSS Profile successfully. Maybe with the right plan in place you could too…
If you’re shopping for colleges based on their sticker price or avoiding universities that use the CSS Profile in their financial aid process, you’re likely going to miss out wonderful opportunities. You owe it to yourself to do your homework and get the help you need so that you can get your kids into the best schools possible for the least amount of money possible there’s a lot of money available to help make college more affordable and I now you know little bit more about how to claim some of the for yourself.