The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® is a nonfederal financial aid application that nearly 280 schools and scholarship programs use to determine students’ eligibility for institutional and scholarship aid. Students applying for aid from one of these schools or programs must submit the PROFILE, which entails a small fee of $9 to register plus $16 per college, in addition to the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The federal government uses the FAFSA to determine how much in federal grants, work-study funds and loans students are eligible for, regardless of which school they attend. Some schools also rely solely on the FAFSA to determine how much aid the school itself will award a student so that he or she can afford to attend.  Other schools use the PROFILE form to determine how much aid they will award from their own coffers. The amount of aid a student receives based on the PROFILE application varies by school. 

Who Should Complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® Application?

Not all students need to fill out the PROFILE application. Only those students who are applying to schools that require it have to complete the form. Students who are not requesting aid need not submit either the FAFSA or the PROFILE, but even high-income families with plenty of assets may be surprised to find out that they do qualify for some aid, so financial aid experts generally recommend that all students apply. ((Read Why Wealthy Families Should Complete the FAFSA.)

It is mainly private schools that require the PROFILE; few public schools ask for it.  At some schools, students applying early decision or to certain degree programs have to submit the PROFILE, while other students do not. Don’t fill out the PROFILE until you know for sure that your chosen school, degree program and application date require it.

3 Schools That Require the PROFILE®

Here are some examples of schools that use the PROFILE and what they require for the 2017-18 school year. The latest PROFILE form, as well as FAFSA, becomes available October 1.

1. American University, Washington, D.C. – Prospective students must complete both the FAFSA for federal aid consideration and the CSS PROFILE for institutional aid consideration. Returning students only need to fill out the FAFSA. Early Decision I students must submit both forms by Nov. 10; Early Decision II and Regular Decision freshmen must submit both forms by Jan. 10; transfer students must submit both forms by Mar. 1. 

2. Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. – Students who want to be considered for institutional aid must submit the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA. Students do not need to submit the CSS PROFILE if they do not seek institutional aid. Both forms have the same deadlines: Nov. 1 for early action, Feb. 1 for regular action and Mar. 1 for transfer students.

3. Northwestern University, Chicago – Early decision applicants should submit the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE by Dec. 1. Regular decision applicants have until Feb. 15. Transfer students have until Mar. 15 for FAFSA and Apr. 15 for PROFILE. Unlike American University, returning students who continue to seek aid must submit PROFILE and FAFSA each year by May 1. 

While families dread filling out the CSS PROFILE because it is tedious to complete and delves deeply into the student’s and parents’ financial picture, it will give the college a very clear picture of the entire family’s financial situation so it can determine the amount of institutional aid that can be awarded to the student, says Gina Nisco, an independent college counselor and founder and president of Positive Next Steps in Connecticut. The goal is to make sure the awards given are fair to all families.

“These awards can be very substantial and many times make the decision of whether that student can afford to attend or not,” Nisco says. A lot of this money comes from endowments given to the school by donors, and it’s important to file as early as possible and definitely by the deadline to be eligible for money that is given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Gaming the PROFILE® System

Families who know how financial aid officers evaluate PROFILE applications can take a few steps to minimize the amount of assets they will be expected to contribute toward the cost of college.

“One of the simplest things families can do to save money is simply not keep any money or assets in the student’s name,” says independent college counselor Kristen Moon. She is the founder of Moon Prep, a college application guidance company based in Atlanta. “It is an easy thing to do and can save thousands.”

Students are expected to contribute a much higher percentage of their assets than parents are, Moon says. No bank accounts, stocks or assets should be in a student’s name. An exception are 529 plans, since PROFILE evaluates them the same way no matter whose name they are held in – parent, grandparent or student. CSS PROFILE expects 25% of students’ assets to be used to pay for college, but only 5% of parents’ assets.

In addition, retirement assets are exempt from the PROFILE calculation, Moon says. “Max out these accounts with any extra income you have before your child goes to college.

“The ‘before’ is key here,” Moon continues. “The retirement fund itself is not counted as an asset. It is not counted in the same way that home equity is counted as an asset for the CSS Profile. But, if you contribute money to it while the student is in college, then this is counted as income.”

It is best to contribute to the retirement account early to avoid it being counted as income and thus counted in the PROFILE calculation, Moon says. “PROFILE looks at prior-prior year tax forms. So contributions must be made before that.” 

Finally, a parent who is considering getting married needs to know that this decision can have large implications for financial aid. PROFILE will take a new spouse’s income and assets into account, even if a prenuptial agreement has clauses that separate each partner’s income, assets and financial responsibilities.

“A stepparent with a high income can cost the student thousands in aid,” Moon says. “This is especially detrimental if they do not intend to help cover any of the college costs.”

A big benefit of the PROFILE form compared with FAFSA is that it allows families to provide information about any special circumstances that affect their ability to pay for college that may not be reflected elsewhere on the form. Examples include a parent’s unemployment, death or disability; extraordinary medical or dental expenses; private tuition for elementary or secondary education; a recent divorce; bankruptcy or foreclosure; and childcare or eldercare expenses. (To learn how to game the FAFSA, read When Saving for College Is a Bad Idea.)

The Bottom Line

Submitting the College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE application is an essential step for securing financial aid from the schools and programs that require it. It can be more work to fill out than the FAFSA, it costs money and it requires more detail about the family’s finances. But it seeks to gain a complete and accurate picture of the student’s financial situation so that schools can award their aid fairly to the deserving students they most want to attend. (For more money-saving tips, see 5 Ways to Fund a College Education.)