Grappling with the CSS Profile

Tips for Completing the CSS Profile.

Because the FAFSA just isn’t fun enough, there’s the CSS Profile. Short for “College Scholarship Service,” the CSS is required by hundreds of colleges and universities as a financial aid application to be used rather than the FAFSA.

See the full list of colleges requiring the CSS Profile.

These CSS schools are primarily private and prestigious, including Harvard and Cornell. So if you’re looking to go somewhere special, you’ll need to go through the CSS.

Necessary Evil

The CSS is more lengthy and invasive than the FAFSA. It will ask about the cars your family owns, retirement accounts and expected taxes for this year. It’s a lot of work, but necessary information for private schools deciding whom to offer enough financial aid to buy a house. It commonly takes a couple hours to complete at least.

The CSS is offered by the College Board, the same people behind the SAT and AP courses. You can’t get to college without going through them. They’ve been criticized for their excessive fees and expensive board of directors.

But here’s an early lesson, young fledgling student: deal with it. You won’t be able to change most of the big institutions in the world. Either play the game by their rules or don’t play.

If the CSS paperwork is your gateway to hundreds of thousands in financial aid and the career you want, a couple hours of exposure and pain is worth it.

Speaking of Fees

The CSS Profile is $25 to fill out for one school then $16 for each additional school. Yes, college hunting is expensive especially if you need financial aid. If you have ten schools on your list, that’s $169 in CSS fees alone.

You can apply to have the filing fee waived based on your financial situation. Even if you are denied a fee waiver, you can ask each school individually. They will say “no problem” or “no way.” It’s up to the school.

While paying to ask for financial aid sounds tough, it does keep the system from being bogged down. Imagine if you could apply for every scholarship, grant and college in the world with a click? Trillions of applications would crash the entire system.

Crashing the System?

Another lesson that works for the CSS application and everything else: don’t wait until the last minute.

The CSS deadlines vary by school, but for Early Action they are often November 1. Note that many students will be scrambling to send their application on the last half of the last day. You’d think College Board would be prepared for that kind of traffic, but don’t bet your career on it.

Back in 2009 the CSS system struggled mightily to handle the wave of last-minute applications. In the last hours before the deadline people could not log it, were being dropped and receiving weird error messages.

Maybe you’ve come to assume that computers will always do everything every time you ask. Ask your parents. That hasn’t always been the case.

About Your Parents

If you only live with one, the form will ask you about your non-custodial parent. It will want to know the level of aid they provide, what their income is and then some. Plan ahead if communication is tough and the answers will take time.

If you’re receiving no support from your non-custodial parent, you can apply for a non-custodial waiver.

Be patient with your parents. They’re doing a lot to get you into college. All the estimating and record-digging they have to deal with on the CSS Profile is stressful. Give them time and remind them of the rewards.

If they feel that the College Board doesn’t trust them, it’s because others have ruined it for everyone. Fraud, money hiding and diversionary tactics are common. Financial aid officers have seen every trick in the book, necessitating a deep-probing process like the CSS Profile.

But you don’t have to go it alone. The Khan Academy has a nice step-by-step guide to the process.

This isn’t the first time you’ll have to deal with a painful application process. It will pass. It’s an opportunity to learn the value of patience and filling out all the boxes. Tough it out.