The CSS Profile is a financial aid application used by more than 200 colleges, universities, and scholarship programs. It is administered by the College Board, the organization behind the SAT, PSAT, and other standardized tests. 

Key Takeaways

  • The CSS Profile is a financial aid application required by some colleges, universities, and scholarship programs.
  • Students who file a CSS Profile should also complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • The CSS Profile asks for more information than the FAFSA, but, unlike the FAFSA, students and their families may only have to fill it out once.

Understanding the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is used primarily by private colleges and universities to award nonfederal aid. Those include some of the nation’s most selective and expensive schools, such as Harvard, Northwestern, and Stanford. It is also used by some private scholarship programs. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), by contrast, is used to determine students’ eligibility for federal Pell grants, loans, and work-study programs. The FAFSA is also used by many public and private colleges and scholarship programs to award their own aid.

All students who hope to receive federal financial aid should fill out the FAFSA each year. Only students who are applying to a school or scholarship program that requires the CSS Profile need to fill it out. Some students (and their parents) will need to fill out both. The College Board provides a list of participating institutions and programs that use the CSS Profile on its website.

In addition, some states and institutions also have their own individual financial aid forms.

The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

The CSS Profile and the FAFSA both become available online on Oct. 1 each year. Their due dates will depend on the school or other program and whether the student is applying for early or regular admission.

Beyond those similarities, there are several major differences between the two forms. For one, the FAFSA is free, while the CSS Profile costs $25 for the application and first college or scholarship program selected, plus another $16 for each additional one. First-time college applicants may be eligible for a fee waiver based on their family income if they qualified for an SAT fee waiver or are an orphan or ward of the court under the age of 24.

The CSS Profile also requires more financial detail in many cases, according to the independent website FinAid.org. For example, it takes family homeownership into account, while the FAFSA doesn’t. In addition, the CSS Profile may ask questions specific to each institution or program to which the student is applying; the FAFSA simply asks one set of questions.

If the student’s parents are divorced or separated, the CSS Profile may require that both parents supply financial information. The FAFSA requires financial information only from the parent the student lived with for a greater period of time during the previous 12 months, plus any stepparent if that parent has remarried. 

One advantage of the CSS over the FAFSA, as the College Board points out, is that the maximum federal Pell grant is $6,345 for the 2020-2021 school year, while wealthy colleges may offer scholarships worth many times that. Some colleges also require families to fill out the CSS Profile just once, before freshman year, while families have to fill out the FAFSA every year if they wish to continue receiving aid.  

How to Fill Out the CSS Profile

There are four basic steps to completing the CSS Profile, according to the College Board. They can be summarized as:

  1. Create an account—If you’ve already created an account with the College Board—for example, to take the SAT—you should use that username and password. If not, you can create a new account.
  2. Fill out the application—Before you sit down to fill out your CSS Profile, you’ll want to round up some key documents. Those will include your most recent tax returns and W-2 forms, as well as records regarding bank accounts and other assets. The College Board points out that you don’t have to complete the application in one sitting; you can save it and return to it later. You’ll find the application at cssprofile.org.
  3. Submit your application—Once you hit the “Submit” button, your reports will be sent to the schools or programs you’ve listed. 
  4. Check your account dashboard for next steps—Those next steps may include submitting any required documents to the Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC). 

What Is the Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC)? 

The Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC) is the College Board’s platform for uploading and storing your relevant financial documents. The College Board will automatically transmit them to any colleges or scholarship programs on your CSS Profile that request them. Those documents can include, for example, both the student’s and parents’ tax returns.

You can’t change your CSS Profile online after you’ve submitted it. However, if you have changes you want to make, you can send them directly to the colleges’ financial aid offices.

Can You Change Your CSS Profile?

Once you have submitted your CSS Profile, you can’t change it, although you can add more colleges to your list at any time by returning to your dashboard and entering their names. 

Colleges recommend that if your circumstances change substantially after you submit the CSS Profile—say a parent lost a job or the family faced some other financial setback—you should print out the relevant pages, make any changes by hand, and send them to the school’s financial aid office. Many colleges have specific instructions on their websites.

Note also that the CSS Profile includes a “Special Circumstances” section where you can describe any changes in employment, catastrophic events, or other issues that may not be reflected on the tax forms or other backup you used to fill in the required information. If your circumstances change before you submit the CSS Profile, this is your opportunity to explain. The box allows for up to 2,000 characters, or roughly 300 words, including spaces. The 2021-2022 CSS Profile is set to add a new question asking parents whether their income has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; if they select “yes,” they can provide details in the Special Circumstances section. 

The Bottom Line

The CSS Profile is the key to private financial aid at some colleges, universities, and scholarship providers. If you are not applying to any of them, filling it out may be unnecessary. However, if you are, it could be well worth the effort.