Ask Cappex: How Does the CSS PROFILE Work?

In Paying for College on Apr 26, 2016

Our college expert Mark Kantrowitz answers your questions about college and financial aid.

Q: How does the CSS PROFILE work and how is it different from the FAFSA?

A: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is a financial aid application form used by about 200 colleges and universities for awarding their own financial aid funds. The PROFILE form is developed by the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS).

Colleges that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form must still use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for federal and state aid.

The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE attempts to prevent wealthy students from looking poor by asking more questions than the FAFSA.

Both forms estimate a family’s ability to pay, called the expected family contribution (EFC), by assessing a portion of discretionary income. Discretionary income is what is left from total income after mandatory expenses are subtracted. Mandatory expenses include allowances for taxes as well as a minimal allowance for living expenses.

The EFC calculated by the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form is usually higher than the EFC calculated by the FAFSA, leading to less eligibility for need-based aid.

Some of the primary differences between the two forms include:

  • The PROFILE charges a fee and the FAFSA is free
  • The PROFILE includes a minimum student contribution (sometimes called a summer work expectation) which increases the EFC even for low-income students.
  • The FAFSA ignores the net worth of the family home, while the PROFILE counts it, capping the net worth at 2-3 times income.
  • The FAFSA ignores all assets for families with less than $50,000 in income in certain circumstances, while the PROFILE does not.
  • The FAFSA has a small business exclusion and the PROFILE does not.
  • The PROFILE ignores paper losses, such as depreciation, capital losses and net operating loss carryforwards, while the FAFSA does not.
  • The PROFILE considers the income and assets of the non-custodial parent in addition to the custodial parent when the student’s parents are divorced or separated. The FAFSA bases the EFC on just the custodial parent’s income and assets.
  • The FAFSA divides the parent contribution by the number of children in college, while the PROFILE is slightly less generous, adding about an extra 10\% when there are two or more children.
  • The PROFILE counts sibling assets if the sibling is not yet in college and age 18 or younger. The FAFSA does not count sibling assets, except for parent-owned 529 college savings plans.
  • The FAFSA assesses student assets at 20\% and the PROFILE at 25\%.
  • The FAFSA assesses parent assets on a bracketed scale of up to 5.64\%. The PROFILE assesses parent assets at up to 5\%.
  • The PROFILE has an explicit allowance for college savings. The FAFSA has a small asset protection allowance, but the asset protection allowance has been decreasing significantly since 2009-10.
  • The PROFILE has an allowance for an emergency fund and the FAFSA does not.
  • The PROFILE has adjustments for differences in the regional cost of living and the FAFSA does not.
  • The PROFILE includes a question about special circumstances and the FAFSA does not.

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