What’s New Inside the CSS Profile

on October 17, 2017

The financial aid application form that about 200 colleges and a handful of scholarship programs use to determine which students receive need-based financial assistance is sporting a new look and feel.


The facelift started with a change to a shorter name. The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is now known as the CSS Profile.


According to the College Board, colleges use the CSS Profile to determine who receives almost $9 billion dollars of their own institutional support. The College Board maintains both the application form and the financial aid methodology, which is a proprietary formula.


In rolling out the new CSS Profile, Susan McCrackin, senior director of the College Board’s Financial Aid Services, emphasized the goal in redesigning the application was to create a better application experience that is clearer, easier to read and extremely intuitive.


Here are some highlights of the CSS Profile overhaul:


Special Circumstances


The special circumstances portion of the application, which McCrackin called “one of the most appreciated sections,” has changed.


This is the section where families can explain why their financial situation is worse than what the financial figures that they have shared on the CSS Profile would suggest. For instance, the parents’ tax return might suggest the household has a healthy income, but one of the parents recently lost his or her job.


Based on feedback from parents and the financial aid community, the CSS Profile now provides a lineup of the most common categories of special circumstance. Here they are:

  • Changes in employment
  • Scholarships
  • Exceptional medical or dental expenses
  • Siblings in private school
  • Sponsor information
  • Eldercare expenses
  • Financial support of other family members
  • Non-recurring income or expenses

The special circumstances in the above list that could be puzzling are “Scholarships” and “Sponsor information.” A student might have gotten an outside scholarship, but it is only good for one year. The sponsor line item is particularly relevant for international students.


If none of those categories are relevant, there is an option for “other.” Families can use up to 2,000 characters to elaborate on their issue.


The special circumstances section is a required field because McCrackin said financial aid administrators said they want to be sure that families don’t inadvertently skip it.


Divorce and Separation


Until now, the CSS Profile required the custodial parent to complete the financial aid form without information from the child’s other biological or adoptive parent. The other parent would complete a separate Noncustodial PROFILE form.  


The CSS Profile now requires the custodial parent to name all parents on the form, with room for four in all. For example, if the custodial parent remarries and the ex-spouse remarries, all four of these individuals will be listed on the form. This gives the colleges a better idea of the family situation. Even deceased parents must be listed.


What also has changed is the disappearance of the Noncustodial PROFILE. Many CSS Profile colleges required the noncustodial parent to complete this special form. These parents, however, now will be completing the regular CSS Profile.


When the custodial parent completes the CSS Profile, an email box will pop up if any of the colleges on a child’s list require financial information from the noncustodial parent. The email alert will require the parent to provide the email address of the other parent with the notification that he or she must fill out the aid document. 


Parent Waiver


The College Board has made it easier for a student to ask colleges to ignore the income and assets of one or more parents via a waiver.


Colleges often have their own waivers, but the College Board wanted to create a branded waiver on its own site that it’s encouraging colleges to use. Students will ask a college for a waiver for such things as a missing parent, a parent who was never in his/her life and an incarcerated parent.


Application Fees


The application fees haven’t changed except for people living in recent natural disaster areas. The College Board charges $25 for the first application submission and $16 for every report sent to an individual college after that.


In cases of divorce and separation, the noncustodial parent will      pay a flat fee of $25.  


Hurricane victims can submit free applications. Any student living in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands can use up to eight fee waivers, which will allow them to apply for free. The fee waivers also are available for students who live in counties where Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit that FEMA declared disaster areas.


Reporting Income


Parents and students will report the same income figures as before, but the CSS Profile is asking for them differently. The new application asks which IRS return the submitters used – 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ – and customizes the questions based on the type of federal income tax return.


Not all parents will know the definition of some of the terms used on tax forms such as adjusted gross income (AGI), but it’s not necessary to know because the aid application directs you to the correct line on your tax return.


No Corrections


There still is no correction process for the CSS Profile. If you make a mistake, it’s up to you to contact all the colleges that the application has been sent to for a correction.


The only time you can add more information to the CSS Profile after it’s been submitted is when a student wants to send the aid application to additional colleges. Those institutions might require the applicant to answer extra supplemental questions.


Getting a Copy of the CSS Profile


Many parents would like to print a copy of the CSS Profile in advance so they know what questions they will have to answer. That isn’t possible because the application is dynamic and interactive, so the final form depends on the family’s circumstances.


For instance, the CSS Profile for a household that owns a business will be different than for a family where the parents are W-2 wage earners. Questions will vary if parents own a house or rent an apartment.


There is, however, a way around this.  Once you start answering some basic questions, your CSS Profile will start taking shape and you can print it out via the CSS Profile dashboard. It might not contain all of your questions, but hopefully it will show most of them.


Time Commitment


How long will it take to complete the form?


The College Board previously has estimated one hour, but applicants with more complicated finances, such as a family business or farm, might take longer.


McCrackin says the College Board will have a better idea of the time commitment for the redesigned form after the current financial aid season is completed.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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