Financial aid form unlocks crucial assistance but creates hurdles, too

The Chronicle of Higher Education this week took a closer look at the complexities of the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, a financial aid form used by approximately 300 colleges, universities, and organizations to allocate institutional aid. Unlike the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which frequently makes headlines for its college access implications, the CSS Profile “gets relatively little fanfare.”

Yet, more than 400,000 students use the CSS Profile each year to unlock more than $9 billion in financial aid. The form requires a significant amount of detail, the Chronicle writes, and illustrates a tension in the provision of financial aid: “More information can help colleges, but asking for too much can hinder families.”

Offering a fuller picture of families’ financial situation

Colleges and universities that use the CSS Profile say it helps them better understand the nuances of families’ financial situations in order to deliver the right aid package. The form, a product of the College Board, delves into more detail than the FAFSA, asking, for instance, about home equity and changes in a family’s financial circumstances over time.

“The Profile gives us additional information, a larger lens we can use to award funding based on the family’s financial position,” says John L. Mahoney, vice provost for enrollment management at Boston College. “We want to make our limited resources go as far as they can.”

Creating financial, logistical hurdles for students and families

However, the form’s cost, complexity, and requirements can create challenges for students. Whereas college applicants can submit the FAFSA for free, students must pay $25 to submit the CSS Profile to an institution, and $16 for each subsequent college. The College Board offers fee waivers and says 22 percent of first-time U.S. submitters receive them, but students must complete their CSS Profile in order to learn whether they get a waiver. And, while the FAFSA “is a one-shot deal” that sends the same information to every school, individual colleges can set their own CSS Profile questions and submission requirements.

Given the amount of information required, navigating the CSS Profile process can be particularly challenging for students from lower-income families and students who are not in contact with both parents. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile requires financial information from noncustodial parents; students unable to obtain noncustodial parents’ participation can ask colleges to waive the noncustodial parent requirement, but the waiver process can be complicated.

Carolyn Blair, a college counselor at Clayton High School just outside St. Louis, Missouri, where nearly 25 percent of students are low-income, told the Chronicle that some lower-income families are reluctant to ask for help until it’s too late to complete the profile and that some students simply abandon the process.

Blair says she has learned to intervene early. “They’re kids,” she says. “You can’t just be like, ‘Here’s a million-dollar balloon—don’t pop it.’”

FAFSA simplification could increase reliance on CSS Profile

Nonetheless, the Chronicle says there’s a chance that more institutions will turn to the form for help making financial aid decisions, now that the FAFSA is due for further simplification by 2022.

“Many colleges will be looking for information that will no longer be on the FAFSA,” says Michael J. Runiewicz, assistant vice provost and director of student financial services at Washington University in St. Louis. “If we want this process to improve for students, we can’t leave the CSS Profile as it is. We have to figure out a way to make it simpler.”

Dean Bentley, executive director of financial aid engagement and services for the College Board, says the organization is aware of concerns about the CSS Profile’s complexity and has made changes, like allowing users to automatically skip unnecessary questions. “The application is more comprehensive. But the payoff is worth it,” he says, adding that colleges using the CSS Profile award an average of $45,000 in need-based aid to individual applicants.

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