Thinking Private School? Look beyond FAFSA.

By Staff


This is the time of year when students and parents are running around the house, gathering financial information, receipts and pay stubs in order to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While the need for an annual round of the FAFSA Tango is generally well known, there’s another financial aid application out there that more and more schools are using: The College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Nearly 400 private colleges and universities require students to submit a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE — I’m just going to call it “the CSS” from here on out — in order to determine non-federal aid eligibility.

CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE Overview

Schools that require students to file a CSS use the information they gather to administer grants, scholarships and private loans. Because these types of aid funds tend to be more competitive — and therefore run out more quickly — the deadline for getting your CSS in to the school tends to come up sooner than that of the FAFSA. The deadlines vary by school, so be sure to ask if your school needs you to fill out a CSS and when it is due. Unlike the FAFSA, you can fill out and submit your CSS in the fall for the next academic year.

One more thing to keep in mind, particularly if you’re a prospective freshman applying to multiple schools, is that the CSS is not free (unlike FAFSA). The cost for submitting a CSS is $5 plus $18 for each school or scholarship program you send the CSS to. This is another argument for making a decision about where you’re attending school as early as possible.

CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE Tips

The CSS is available as an online application. Before you start, however, the College Board recommends you gather all the necessary information in order to make the process go more smoothly. Before you sit down at the computer, gather up:

  • Your current year federal income tax return(s), if completed;
  • Last year’s federal income tax return(s);
  • W-2 forms and other records of money earned last year;
  • Records of untaxed income and benefits for the last two tax years;
  • Current bank statements;
  • Current mortgage information;
  • Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments;
  • In the case of divorced parents, the noncustodial parent’s email address.

While it’s usually a better bet to have your taxes filed before completing the CSS, the earlier deadlines and the need to get your application in early may not always make this a feasible option. You can always estimate your income using pay stubs, W-2s and last year’s taxes.

For students whose parents are divorced, the custodial parent should fill out the CSS. However, unlike colleges that look only at the FAFSA, schools that use the CSS may require additional financial information from the non-custodial parent. The CSS also requires a minimum financial contribution from the student, which is also a departure from FAFSA.

One thing that can work to students’ advantages is that the CSS leaves much more of the eligibility decisions to the professional judgment of the individual colleges’ financial aid administrators. This allows more leeway for you to describe your own specific financial situation and not simply be pegged as an EFC and left at that.