Tackling the CSS Profile Application

 What parents should know about the CSS Profile.

Filling out the CSS Profile financial aid application is like bathing a porcupine: it will be painful and filled with sticking points but it’s a dirty job that has to be done.

If your student wants to go to any one of almost 300 colleges and universities that require the CSS Profile, you need to power through this form. It may take two hours or more. It will require you to dig up a bunch of financial records, estimate your future income and demand much more than the FAFSA, but it’s the only way to get aid to these schools.

Isn’t It Too Much?

Do you think College Board has a right to ask so many questions? Be prepared to present information about your spending habits, when you bought your cars and your expectations for next year.

If you feel like this form doesn’t trust you, it’s because others have taken advantage of the system. Many previous applicants have pulled tricks to hide their income and resources in order to get maximum aid. This means the dishonest and deceptive get a larger share of federal and privately donated funds.

People change names on bank accounts and delay major purchases until just before completing aid paperwork. They get dodgy and defensive about certain financial topics.

Financial aid officers have seen all the games and know the warning signs. That’s why the CSS is so complex. It seeks to draw a wide financial picture of your family in order to distribute aid most appropriately.

You do want your tax money going to the proper place, right? What if you donated to a college scholarship? Would you want that money to go to the most deserving student or the most deceitful?

Common Mistakes

Mark Lindenmeyer, Director of Financial Aid for Loyola University of Maryland, addressed a number of common financial aid problems for Forbes. Also the Khan Academy does a nice walk-through of the whole process.

Here are some of the issues you may run into:

Taxes Aren't Done

The CSS Profile may be due as early as November 1 for Early Action applicants. This requires you to estimate your yearly income and taxes. It’s a tricky task for business owners or those paid on commission. Do you best and be pessimistic, but not deceptive. Update the forms as soon as you have the real numbers.

Split Parents

If the student does not live with both parents or the parents are not married, how do you file? Start with the “custodial parent,” which is whomever the student lives with most of the time. Include income from parents with partial custody and custodial step-parents. If your student has no contact with a non-custodial parent, you may apply for a waiver.

Siblings' Assets

Yes, CSS asks about everybody. If an account is listed in a parent’s name with a sibling as a beneficiary, the account should be listed only under the parent’s assets.

Rental Property vs. Small Business

You should not list a small business with fewer than 100 employees. To the CSS form, rental property is not a small business, so you must include values of rental property.

The Fees

Like anything the College Board touches, from the SAT to AP courses, expenses add up. The CSS Profile costs $9 initially then $16 for each school you apply to. Spending money to get need-based financial aid is an unfortunate necessity.

Fortunately, the College Board does offer up to waive the fee for up to eight applications. If you are not eligible for this program, you can still ask individual schools if they will waive the fee.

Some will do it instantly. Others will give you a waiver code. Some will refuse, but it never hurts to ask.

Clarity and Honesty

You may feel a bit bothered and indignant by the invasive CSS Profile application, but take a moment to look at things from the other side.

If you were deciding how to allocate money to individual students, would you value integrity and transparency? Remember, not only is the school deciding how to help you pay tuition, but whether to offer admission at all.

Honesty is a big part of the decision. Cheating in class, falsifying records and fudging financial information are all huge black marks.

Approach this process with nothing to hide and you’ll get all the financial aid your student deserves.


Forbes: The Five Questions Tripping Parents Up on College Aid Forms

Khan Academy: CSS Profile Walkthrough