The most burdensome form of approvals drills into the bones of your existence. Every year it creates confusion and multiplies the misery among those who seek financial support from many of the richest universities in the country. It is known as the College Scholarship Service Profile or CSS Profile for short. Some students call it annoying, invasive, nasty.
One fall morning, the CSS profile frustrated a single mother of two in St. Louis. The woman, who asked not to be identified by name, trudged through the application on the clunky computer in her basement for four hours but couldn't get through everything. This question amazed her: "Current value of tax-deferred and after-tax pension, annuity, annuity and savings plans such as IRA, Roth IRA, Keogh, SEP, 401 (a), 401 (k), 403 (b), 408, 457, 501 (c). "She knew she had a retirement account through her employer, but wasn't sure what type, how much, or how to access it.
Days later she walked into Carolyn Blair's office with a face full of concern. "Carolyn," she said, "help me."
Blair, a college counselor at Clayton High School, just outside St. Louis, is a full-time problem solver who covers crises with calm. She had done what she could to help the woman, a South American immigrant with a sharp mind, warm smile, and little money. The woman mopped the floors and scrubbed the toilets to make a living, hoping a four-year college would give her youngest daughter, a senior at Clayton High, enough financial support to enroll.
But there was little chance if she didn't fill out the tedious form. "It's confusing because my English is not good enough to understand the terms," the mother told Blair. "A person born and raised in this country may not have the same difficulties as me."
"Actually," said Blair, "they do."
The complicated shape confuses the poor, the wealthy and those in between – but especially the poor. The stakes are particularly high for those with little or no money to go to college. The CSS profile is a gatekeeper for funds that many of the wealthiest colleges spend each year.
Approximately 300 colleges, schools, and scholarship organizations require students seeking institutional help to complete the online application. The form, run by the College Board, is designed to provide a complete picture of an applicant's financial and family background and to help colleges determine their package of assistance.
The CSS profile is more detailed than the free State Student Grant Application (Fafsa). The latter form of government grants and loans for families has long been seen as a barrier to access to higher education. However, if the Fafsa has a difficulty level of 100 meters, the CSS profile is a mile.
And in contrast to the federal form, it is not free for everyone. The College Board provides fee waivers for some low-income students. Otherwise, families pay $ 25 to submit the form to college, then $ 16 per pop for each additional.
Although some institutions no longer require the CSS Profile, grant officials predict that more will be introduced before adopting it simplified fafsa arrives in 2022. The CSS profile could become something that more applicants will have to deal with.
However, this is not just a story of bureaucratic problems. This is a story of wrung-out teenagers, broken families, and the relentless grip of poverty – a story of how the college complex often serves wealthy two-parent students better than anyone else.
The CSS profile: it is what the system needs. But there is a human cost.
For us to be clear, the application that is used by 400,000+ students annually is neither evil nor malicious. It helps colleges and scholarship organizations allocate more than $ 9 billion to students annually, and often opens doors to new life.
But the same process that expands the options for some applicants is contracted for others. Low-income applicants and first generation applicants who could benefit greatly from submitting the form often have difficulty completing it. And sometimes they give up.
Like the twin sisters Carolyn Blair advised a few years ago. They were high-performing black students, younger versions of themselves. They took advanced courses, received excellent grades, and qualified for a federal Pell Grant to help families with financial needs. They applied to numerous universities, including wealthy private institutions.
Blair, the longtime director of Counseling Services at Clayton High, knew that students had a great chance of receiving significant on-demand grants from these facilities. You just had to fill out the CSS profile. As their story would show, a mere task for some is a dead end for others.
I do it for a living, she thought. How was it for everyone else?
Helping students apply for grants is a crucial part of Blair's job. But she struggled some time ago to complete the CSS profile for one of her sons. After realizing that she had made a mistake in form, she was outraged. I do this for a living She thought. How was it for everyone else??
Every year Blair warns junior parents ahead of time before applying: "When you get to the CSS profile, the colleges will ask you to chop off your finger and send it to them."
Nevertheless, the application surprises many seniors. Most families hear about the Fafsa long before the form is filled out. Many schools offer Fafsa workshops and discuss this over grant evenings. But the CSS profile required by a fraction of colleges is getting relatively little enthusiastic. "It's like a secret process," says Blair.
Clayton High, a public school, serves many wealthy students, some of whom show up in shiny Hummers and Teslas. Almost a quarter of the school’s students are entitled to free and discounted lunches. Some are homeless.
These differences play out in the grant process. Some parents, like the law professor who called Blair about being nervous about the CSS profile, have the time and inclination to reach out when they encounter hooks.
But parents who ride buses or collect trash or call groceries for a living tend to keep questions to themselves. In their experience, they are reluctant to turn anyone off, if they are hired at all.
This is perhaps the most important thing to know about the CSS Profile: teenagers, especially in low-income families, are often the ones who fill out the form. They dig up tax forms and ask reluctant parents for their social security number. You will be asked to list social security benefits for all family members except those enrolled in college between 2021 and 22 who are not listed on a tax return, and alimony payments (including, but not limited to) amounts shown on a tax return are) ”and to answer that:“ Is any person in your family the beneficiary of a trust? "
The College Board says that 97.5 percent of students who start the application fill it out. But some students don't know it exists, say many student advisors. For other students, hearing about them not applying to a college that requires it is a deal breaker.
Those who fail to fill out the form sometimes have no understanding of how much money is at stake or they succumb to competing priorities. "They don't usually come in and say they stopped – they just stop," says Blair. "And it takes all these universities off the table."
That happened to the twin sisters.
Blair had helped them fill out the Fafsa question by question. She had explained why the CSS profile was so important. The young women received numerous admissions, some from wealthy colleges. They seemed to have everything under control.
But when Blair saw her letters of help from those colleges, she was alarmed. Their packages contained only state aid – no institutional grants. She soon learned that the family had not completed the CSS profile.
Why? The answer had to do with the fact that the parents were divorced.
Fafsa only asks the caring parents for information, but most institutions using the CSS profile also collect information from non-caring parents. You'll need to create a College Board account, fill out an additional form called Noncustodial Parent Profile, and provide tax documents.
It is what the system needs.
The young women who lived with their mother told Blair that their father never filled out the form for no-custody parents. Just didn't do it.
Although the reason wasn't really clear, Blair had seen how a schism between divorced or separated parents can leave their children stuck in the middle, especially when one parent fears that financial information could be shared with a former spouse. (Divorced parents who fill out the form separately will not have access to each other's information.)
In this case, Blair concluded, the father's failure to fill out the form had likely shortened his daughters list of affordable options for college. "They were teenagers," she says, "who had no agency to get an adult to do something they didn't want to do."
After their senior year had passed, the sisters applied to other colleges in hopes of finding a campus with help. Both chose the University of Missouri at Columbia, which granted them loan packages. When Blair saw the amounts, she winced.
Recently, Blair unearthed an old copy of the twins' Student Aid Report that applicants received after completing the Fafsa. Her expected family contribution (EFC) to college was found to be $ 1,900 per year.
They are children. You can't just say, "Here's a million dollar balloon – don't pop it."
She still believes she failed by not checking in with them all the time. Had she known her father wasn't filling out the form, she would have called and asked him before it was too late. Had he done so, she would likely have received significant on-demand grants – and much less debt to repay.
That experience was a lesson: she couldn't expect every teenager to meet the requirements of the CSS profile on their own.
"They are children," she says. "You can't just say," There's a million dollar balloon here – don't pop it. "
Elisa Wyke, a high school graduate in Richmond, Texas, wondered this while studying the CSS profile. It was a lonely experience.
Wyke lives with her mother, an immigrant from Dominica whom she describes as loving and supportive. But her mother has long expected her to figure things out for herself, whether she's paying bills or seeking financial assistance.
While some parents dutifully untangle every knot their children encounter, it's important to remember that many, many students end up completing the CSS profile themselves. "I had to be the adult in this situation," says Wyke. "I wasn't allowed to be the kid and I said," Mom, can you fill out this form for me? "
The CSS profile opens on October 1st of each year. "You should submit no later than two weeks prior to the EARLIEST Priority Filing Date set by your colleges," explains the College Board website. This is a complication for students: many colleges have multiple support deadlines, and these deadlines vary from campus to campus.
Wyke, whose mother earns a modest income as a nurse, knew the importance of completing the application some colleges on her list need to be of great help to her. When she first logged into the CSS profile, she found that it was longer and more detailed than the Fafsa.
But the worst, she says, was the lack of consistency. "Each college has its own way of interacting with the CSS Profile, and you won't find out until you do it for that college."
The Fafsa is a one shot deal: fill it out and you're done. Each college on your list will then receive an identical copy.
The CSS profile works differently. Colleges can add custom questions (how much are your monthly auto payments?) And set their own requirements for submitting information – and request more of it.
After students have completed the CSS profile, they will need to upload the required tax and financial documents to Institutional Documentation Services (IDOC) for submission to various colleges. Students select the colleges they wish to submit their completed form to by entering each institution's four-digit CSS profile code.
But wait. Some colleges require students to submit supporting documents through their institutional portals instead. Some also require students to complete additional grant forms.
In order to fill out the CSS profile, Wyke summarized her mother's tax return, tax protocol and W-2 form 2019. She found the necessary records of her mother's untaxed income and bank statements.
She was confused about the current market value of her house. She found her mother's mortgage documents, but wasn't sure how to read them. Here was the rating. Here was the original price.
Her mother had two mortgages, she found. So Wyke added the two amounts.
Was that right?
She added up her mother's cash.
She had two years of medical and dental expenses that were not covered by insurance.
She collected undelivered letters showing that neither she nor her father – who is disabled – had paid taxes in 2019.
This form is not made for students like me, Wyke thought further.
In some cases, students completing the CSS profile will need access to a scanner in order to upload images of documents. Some may also need a printer. Reliable Internet service that Wyke doesn't have at home is a must. While she was working on the form, she had to take a break to restart her router.
"It was very exhausting," she said of filling out the form.
Wyke was accepted into the University of Chicago, which gave her a considerable amount of help. She is excited.
But the process did something for her and made her ponder its significance. "A lot of parents want to help their children, but the system doesn't teach the parents – it teaches the students," says Wyke. “And it makes the process a lot more stressful for the students themselves. To be successful in the application process, you must either be completely self-sufficient or completely rich. And you shouldn't have to be extreme either. "
Wyke was lucky. She had help from a knowledgeable college advisor Academic achievement program, a non-profit group that guides students through the application process. But many of her friends didn't. It was decided not to fill out the CSS profile due to exhaustion after completing the Fafsa and being selected for review, a strenuous process that disproportionately affects applicants with little money.
"That's the thing," says Wyke, "when you are a low-income student, the process becomes more and more complex."
There are many reasons why you may need to request a CSS Profile Requirement waiver. One academic advisor calls the process "the worst and most degrading thing I have ever seen".
Sergio Acosta, a high school graduate in Thornton, Colorado, agrees. He has to describe his complex relationship with his father and says: "Has driven me into an emotional trauma."
Acosta was born in the USA but lived with his family in Mexico for years. He moved back to the United States with his mother and older brother in 2014, the year his parents separated. For a while, his family lived with three other relatives in an aunt's basement. His mother worked as a seamstress before getting a job in a medical clinic. In the grocery store, the teenager eyed colorful boxes of pop-tarts, but forced himself not to ask his mother to spend money on them.
Acosta's family now lives in a three bedroom apartment and he works part time as a host at an outback steakhouse. He makes $ 8.08 an hour plus an additional $ 35-40 per night on shared tips. That covers his car insurance, personal expenses and part of the rent. He comes home at 10 p.m., the pungent smell of the restaurant lingers on his clothes and often stays up late to do homework.
After completing the Fafsa, Acosta found that his expected family contribution to college is $ 5,374 per year. He applied to a dozen selective colleges, half of which required the CSS profile. I have no idea at allhe thought when he saw the questions what that asks me.
The Fafsa is available in Spanish but the CSS profile is not. Acosta's mother speaks little English and he tried to explain to her why colleges asked for information because he couldn't understand why himself.
He was advised by Natalee Deaette, program director for Access Opportunity, an organization that helps high-performing, low-income students. As a new college graduate, she filled out the CSS profile for herself not that long ago. The hardest part was the required follow-up after submitting the form without knowing when she would be ready.
Her mother received food stamps and had no income. Still, one college asked the family to fill out a supplementary form documenting their monthly expenses – rent, groceries, clothing – and resources, including small sums of money a grandmother gave them.
"I had to open that one door," says Deaette of the form, "but then it brought me to all of these other doors that had to be opened."
Last fall, she helped Acosta understand the door he had to open: renouncing parents without custody.
Although the majority of institutions using the CSS profile require non-caring parents to fill out their own form, students who have no contact with that parent may ask colleges to waive the requirement. To do this, fill out the college board's official application form, stating that the institutes usually accept applications in cases of “documented abuse,” legal orders restricting parents' contact with the child, or “no contact or none of the support ever received from the agency, ”examine parents without custody. “Colleges can request documents such as: B. Court documents or legal orders.
It is what the system needs.
Acosta learned that some colleges accept the college board form, but others require their own institutional version of it. So he contacted the colleges on his list.
Some told him to upload their preferred form to IDOC.
Others told him to upload it to their institution's online portal.
Some told him to email it to the grant office.
Acosta applied for a waiver because his father had not lived with his family for years or had given them financial support. And he applied for a waiver because his father was arrested and detained in Mexico last year.
When Acosta submitted its waiver application to Boston College using its own formhe forgot to include the required "personal account" of his situation describing why he felt it was necessary to waive ("Make sure you provide as much detail as possible," the request says).
In an email to Acosta on Jan. 15, the college's financial assistance office said it could not determine whether a waiver was necessary without a signed letter from him or his parent or guardian. "We only grant these kind of exemptions," the email stated, "in cases where it is impossible or harmful for a student to get in touch with their non-caring parents (i.e. there is a History of abuse). "
The directions for the Boston College inquiry are essentially the same as other colleges, but Acosta sensed that he was asked to write something more thorough and perhaps more convincing than the statements he submitted elsewhere. But what?
His father, he said The Chronicle Never physically abused him in late January. But there were times when he didn't hear from his father for months, times when his father said hurtful things.
He postponed writing the statement for a few weeks, steeling himself for the emotions that the task would surely solve.
Sure a lot.
But what if there was no guarantee at all – just one chance, maybe a small one, that things would work out?
Many low-income students who scour the CSS profile each year struggle with the thought that they may not even get into one of the colleges that require it. "It makes you question the purpose," says Acosta. "Why invest a lot of time in something that might not happen?"
But he went on.
Late that night in February, Acosta wrote a personal statement describing his relationship with his father, how they sometimes quarreled, how his father once berated him and "told me … he didn't need me".
Annoyed, Acosta had to pause before finishing the statement explaining that his father was in jail and that their interactions were limited to brief phone calls. "I've framed it so that a sensitive reader," he says, "can put himself in my shoes."
Acosta later shared a polished two-sided draft with Deaette that told him it was too long. She knew that grant officials would not read a personal essay about what he had learned from his experience. She helped him reduce the statement to half a page.
Submitting a waiver does not guarantee approval. And colleges often request more information from students.
In the January email to Acosta, Boston College informed him that he would have to provide "additional details" about his situation in the form of a letter from an impartial third party. Acosta had already submitted a brief statement from its school advisor as required on the form. So he asked the school psychologist who told him she needed to get permission to do this.
He waited to hear back. Have been waiting.
Finally, Acosta asked Deaette to write the letter. In it, she stated that Acosta's father had "sporadic, inconsistent and unpredictable" contact with him and that because he is imprisoned, he "has no income and cannot submit grant applications".
Signatures from Acosta and his mother were required for each waiver application form. But he didn't have a printer and couldn't go to a library because Covid-19 had closed everyone near him. So he printed out the documents at work and brought them home for his mother to sign. Then he scanned them with his phone with an app that costs $ 9.99 a month, emailed them to himself, and then submitted them to each college.
Acosta did not qualify for a CSS Profile fee waiver because its mother's income combined with his own exceeded the eligibility threshold. So he took on extra shifts at work to pay the fees.
This winter Acosta asked if he should even go to college. He met a recruiter for the US Marine Corps who explained all of the benefits he would get if he joined. That's great, he thought.
But he didn't want to throw in the trash all the late nights he'd spent filling out college applications. He applied for two government grants.
By mid-February, three colleges had indicated that they needed more information from him in order to complete the CSS profile. Exhausted, he imagined pressing a button that would take him a day or two off.
"I feel overwhelmed right now," he said the afternoon before his shift in the outback. "It's just one roadblock at a time."
Here's a telling moment: During a session at a national conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2019, a California Institute of Technology admissions officer called the form “chore and chore” for families and said, “It's ridiculous and we get it is it."
Caltech has no plans to stop using the form.
This is because the application serves a commandment: determining how finite resources can be efficiently and fairly distributed among applicants in very different circumstances. Two students may have parents making a total of $ 250,000 per year, but one may have a more complex financial situation – and financial need – than the other.
Although many universities use the federal aid form to allocate institutional aid, others find it insufficient. "Fafsa doesn't give us the same level of detail in assessing a family's financial situation or solvency," said John L. Mahoney, vice provost of enrollment management at Boston College. "The profile gives us additional information, a bigger lens that we can use to allocate funding based on the family's financial situation."
When Mahoney entered the admissions sector in the mid-1980s, colleges long used a standard system developed by the College Board's College Scholarship Service (CSS) to measure a student's financial needs. In the 1950s, the CSS created a form that collected income and wealth information that colleges could use to determine a family's solvency for college. Students used the form to apply for both government and institutional grants. The CSS charged applicants a fee for each college the information was sent to.
Then came the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act of 1992, which required the use of a free auxiliary request – the Fafsa – and a federal needs assessment methodology. The CSS form went out of the window. Da einige Hochschulen die neue Methodik als unzureichend empfanden, erstellte das CSS das CSS-Profil, das zu einem weit verbreiteten Mittel zur Verteilung institutioneller Hilfe wurde.
Es ist genauer als das Fafsa, mit dem festgestellt werden soll, ob ein Student Anspruch auf einen Pell-Zuschuss hat und für einen Bundesdarlehenszuschuss qualifiziert ist. Die Fafsa fragt zum Beispiel nicht nach Eigenheimkapital. Das CSS-Profil funktioniert. ("Das ist in unseren Augen eine Ressource, auf die Eltern zurückgreifen müssen", sagt Mahoney.) Die Fafsa sagt den Colleges, wie hoch das bereinigte Bruttoeinkommen einer Familie ist. Das CSS-Profil befasst sich mit Nuancen und geht auf Details wie Geschäftseinkommen und Mietverluste ein.
Im aktuellen Zulassungszyklus enthält das CSS-Profil detaillierte Informationen über das Einkommen einer Familie im Jahr 2019. Es enthält auch eine Schätzung ihres Einkommens für 2020 und eine Prognose ihres Einkommens für 2021. Das Formular fordert die Familien auf, zu erklären, wie sich ihre finanzielle Situation möglicherweise geändert hat. Dieser Kontext kann Pensionierungen, Beförderungen, medizinische Ausgaben oder Studiengebühren für das College eines Geschwisters umfassen.
Das Boston College, das die finanziellen Verhältnisse der Bewerber bei der Zulassung nicht berücksichtigt, gewährte den Studenten im Geschäftsjahr 2020 bedarfsgerechte Zuschüsse in Höhe von 157 Millionen US-Dollar. "Wir möchten, dass unsere begrenzten Ressourcen so weit wie möglich gehen", sagt Mahoney. "Wir setzen uns für die Finanzierung von Studenten mit niedrigem Einkommen ein, möchten aber auch sicherstellen, dass wir gute Verwalter des College-Geldes sind."
Das CSS-Profil bietet laut einigen Zulassungs- und Hilfsbeamten ein gewisses Maß an Überprüfung in einer Welt, in der einige Familien lügen und Vermögenswerte verstecken, in der Hoffnung, die Hochschulen davon zu überzeugen, ihnen mehr Hilfe zu leisten, als sie wirklich benötigen. Dieselbe Welt, in der einige nicht betreuende Eltern, die die Mittel haben, um für das College zu bezahlen, sich der Vorstellung widersetzen, dass sie dies tun werden.
"Das Boston College ist der Ansicht, dass die Hauptverantwortung für die Bildungskosten bei den Schülern und der Familie liegt", heißt es in der Form der nicht betreuenden Eltern. "Daher müssen beide leiblichen Elternteile finanzielle Informationen vorlegen, um festzustellen, ob ein Schüler Anspruch auf finanzielle Unterstützung hat."
Das College verzichtet häufig auf diese Anforderung für Schüler, die seit Jahren keinen Kontakt mehr mit dem nicht betreuenden Elternteil haben, oder in Fällen, in denen die Kontaktaufnahme mit dem nicht betreuenden Elternteil einen Bewerber einem Verletzungsrisiko aussetzen könnte, sagt Mahoney. Sie müssen jedoch zuerst ein Antragsformular für einen Verzicht ausfüllen.
"Ich weiß, dass das sehr schwer fällt – es fällt unverhältnismäßig schwer – auf Kinder der ersten Generation, auf Kinder mit niedrigem Einkommen", sagt er.
Mahoney, ein ehemaliger Englischlehrer in der Vorschule, wurde zugelassen, weil er gerne jungen Menschen hilft – ohne sie unglücklich zu machen. Jedes Jahr im März wenden er und seine Kollegen sich an eine Liste akzeptierter Bewerber, die den Prozess der finanziellen Unterstützung des Kollegiums noch nicht abgeschlossen haben. Das Ziel ist es, Studenten zu helfen, die aufgrund ihrer Pell-Berechtigung oder anderer Faktoren wahrscheinlich viel institutionelle Hilfe erhalten würden.
Oft besteht das Problem darin, dass ein Elternteil ohne Sorgerecht seinen Teil des CSS-Profils nicht ausgefüllt hat. Wie dem auch sei, Mahoney versucht, in diesen Chats, die unweigerlich persönliche Fragen beinhalten, tröstlich und respektvoll zu sein: "Wir treten in eine zutiefst persönliche elterliche Situation ein, also müssen wir nachdenklich und sensibel sein."
Das Boston College schult seine Zulassungs- und Hilfsbeamten, um diese heiklen Gespräche zu führen. Aber ja, diese Gespräche sind ein Schritt in einem Prozess, der teilweise darauf abzielt, die Ressourcen des Colleges zu schützen.
"Wir sind sehr anspruchsvoll", sagt Mahoney.
Finanzielle Hilfe ist ein Balanceakt.
Solche Fragen veranlassten James G. Nondorf vor etwa sieben Jahren, die langjährige Verwendung des CSS-Profils durch die Universität von Chicago in Frage zu stellen.
Nondorf, Chicagos Dekan für Zulassungen und finanzielle Unterstützung, hatte von College-Beratern, die mit schutzbedürftigen Studenten arbeiten, viele Beschwerden über den Antrag gehört, insbesondere über die Forderung nach nicht betreuenden Eltern. Er kam zu der Überzeugung, dass das Formular die Mühe nicht wert war: „Wir haben genau die Leute bestraft, für die wir all diese finanzielle Hilfe hatten. Wir haben arme Leute gebeten, etwas zu tun, das für jemanden mit einem Doktortitel schwierig ist. "
Amanda Fijal, stellvertretende Vizepräsidentin für Finanzhilfe und Einschreibungstechnologie, teilte Nondorfs Besorgnis darüber, dass das CSS-Profil gegen die Bemühungen der Universität arbeitet, mehr Studenten mit niedrigem Einkommen und der ersten Generation einzuschreiben. Internal data showed that many of those students, as well as those from single-parent homes, were taking much longer than others to submit all the form’s required materials. And many applicants who would have been eligible for federal and institutional aid weren’t finishing the process.
“The CSS Profile seemed to be a big hang-up,” Fijal says. “The requirement had become counterintuitive to our goals of access and affordability.”
Furthermore, Chicago was using a fraction of information collected on the form. So why make everyone muddle through the whole thing?
In 2014, Chicago announced that it would no longer require the CSS Profile. The move was predicated on a decision to stop doing two things: collecting information from noncustodial parents and considering home equity in aid evaluations. The former was hampering students, the university concluded, and the latter was punishing families in places where housing prices had risen exorbitantly.
Chicago introduced an alternative aid-application process. Now, all students can complete a free online worksheet, which asks a small handful of questions (including “Please indicate the amount that your parent(s) estimate they will contribute towards educational expenses for the 2021-22 academic year”). The financial-aid staff compares the answers with the information on each applicant’s Fafsa, parents’ tax returns, and W-2 forms.
The change has enabled Chicago to get aid awards to applicants faster, Fijal says. A greater percentage of low-income students and those from single-parent homes are completing the process than had done so before.
About 70 percent of aid applicants used the free worksheet during the most recent aid cycle. In some cases, Fijal says, the university seeks additional information from families if there is conflicting information on the various documents.
Though the potential for fraud is a concern, Fijal says, “we’re comfortable with one student receiving a couple thousand dollars more than they were entitled to if it’s making the process easier for 30 percent of our applicant pool.”
Princeton University replaced the CSS Profile with its own free application two decades ago. “Applying for institutional aid should be free and as simple as possible,” says Robin Moscato, director of undergraduate financial aid and student employment. The new form reduced the number of questions families had to answer by at least 50 percent.
Chicago and Princeton, with endowments of $8.6 billion and $26.6 billion, respectively, gave a total of approximately $350 million in institutional aid in fiscal year 2020. Those whopping numbers make them outliers even among wealthy private colleges, which might help explain why other institutions haven’t followed their lead in scrapping the CSS Profile requirement.
Washington University in St. Louis recently stopped giving applicants the option of completing its free, scaled-down aid application. For one thing, most applicants were using the CSS Profile anyway. And some families found the existence of two forms confusing, says Michael J. Runiewicz, assistant vice provost and director of student financial services. “We thought that if we started using the CSS Profile exclusively, then by helping students complete that form, we would be helping them get through the financial-aid process altogether.”
There were competitive concerns, too. In the past, Runiewicz says, other colleges that require the CSS Profile were able to give “more realistic and generous” aid to applicants than Washington could: “Sometimes we were basically left out. We would still be tracking down information from applicants after other colleges had finalized their aid awards.”
Nationally, the push to simplify the aid process in some ways could complicate it in others.
Late last year, Congress approved long-awaited revisions to the Fafsa and federal-aid methodology. Starting with the 2023-24 aid cycle, the federal form will be much shorter — perhaps with a total of a few-dozen questions (the number will vary by applicant). The pared-down application will make applying for federal aid less tedious and time-consuming.
But the simplified Fafsa will create more demand for the CSS Profile at private colleges, many financial-aid experts say. And more public institutions could join prominent peers such as the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Virginia in requiring it to qualify for institutional need-based aid.. “Many colleges will be looking for information that will no longer be on the Fafsa,” Runiewicz says.
That could make longstanding concerns about the CSS Profile more urgent. “If we want this process to improve for students, we can’t leave the CSS Profile as it is,” Runiewicz said. “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, has heard those concerns. “Families can get very emotional about it,” he says. As a former financial-aid director who once worked with families, he can understand those emotions.
Still, Bentley describes an application that has become more user-friendly over time, based in part off feedback from users. The form now incorporates skip logic that contracts or expands the application based on each applicant’s answers (students might get as few as about 100 questions, others might get 200). Recently, the College Board changed the language of some questions to bring “more sensitivity” to the form, added visual prompts to guide users through it, and led a push that reduced the number of supplemental questions colleges ask students.
The CSS Profile’s detailed questions, Bentley says, benefit applicants of various means: “The application is more comprehensive. But the payoff is worth it. Families can be receiving substantial dollars.” The average need-based award among all colleges using the CSS Profile is $45,000.
But the pay-to-play aspect of the application — $25 to send it to the first college, $16 for each additional one — has long concerned some admissions officials and college counselors who believe that institutions should bear the financial burden of the CSS Profile. As it is, a student applying to eight participating colleges must pay $137.
Why is that? “There is technology overhead to doing the application,” Bentley says, “which drives some of the cost.”
Each year, 22 percent of first-time domestic students using the CSS Profile get fee waivers, according to the College Board. Orphans and wards of the court under 24 get them, as do students receiving SAT fee waivers. Others qualify based on their parental income and family size (a family of four would qualify with an income of $45,000 or less). An applicant’s eligibility is determined automatically by his or her responses on the CSS Profile — meaning they don’t know if they will get a waiver until they complete the form.
Let’s do some quick math. If 22 percent of CSS Profile users get fee waivers, that means 78 percent don’t. That’s approximately 312,000 students who pay the College Board about $7.8 million a year just by completing the $25 form and sending it to one college.
Applicants send reports to approximately four colleges on average, the College Board says; for those receiving fee waivers, the average is slightly higher. The organization says it reinvests funds generated by the CSS Profile into programs and services that help students.
But many disadvantaged applicants get left out, says Sara Urquidez, executive director of the Academic Success Program, which provides college advising to public and charter high schools in Dallas and Houston. “The fee-waiver process is subject to human errors and flaws,” she says. “Students are at the mercy of all the adults who serve as gatekeepers for the system.”
Some students who would qualify for an SAT fee waiver don’t end up getting one because their parents haven’t completed an application for the National School Lunch Program, or because a school counselor couldn’t verify their eligibility. Some students who get an SAT fee waiver don’t get a CSS Profile fee waiver just because a testing coordinator failed to mark them as eligible in the system.
Applicants who don’t qualify for a waiver can ask each college to provide one, good for that college only. But not every institution gives them out, and the office in charge of them varies from campus to campus. Students often email colleges to request a waiver and never hear back, many college counselors say.
And in some states, students wouldn’t qualify even if both their parents held minimum-wage jobs.
“It’s simply not the case that every kid who needs a waiver for the CSS Profile gets a waiver — and there are plenty of kids who don’t get waivers who don’t have $100 to apply for aid,” says Urquidez , whose organization spends $12,000 to cover the cost of the CSS Profile for students it serves. “Meanwhile, many colleges are convinced that families must be hiding a trust fund, so they’re turning over every rock to make sure.”
Let’s take a step back and look at a simple fact: Hundreds of colleges require a form that increases the cost of applying to college for students who … need financial aid.
Does that make any sense?
Alaine Say, a high-school senior in Katy, Tex., doesn’t think so. After her mother, a nurse, and her father, an Uber driver, had to stop working last year because of Covid-19, she called the College Board to request a fee waiver, she says, but was told that she couldn’t qualify because she hadn’t received a fee waiver for the SAT. She needed her school counselor’s help to resolve the issue.
“It’s a little bit of a rip-off,” Say says. “You have to pay for something that you might not even get.”
But if you do get it, you might have to keep paying a fee. Some colleges require returning students to complete the CSS Profile annually. And pay $25.
Will Walker grew up in a home where two-figure sums of money were a big deal. Though his parents’ salaries made them a middle-income family on paper, they needed every dollar to raise their eight children in Winnfield, La., a small town in an economically disadvantaged region. Bills sometimes went unpaid. Walker didn’t get a driver’s license until he was 17 because his parents couldn’t afford the fee until then — and, besides, there was no money for an extra car.
The University of Richmond gave Walker a ton of institutional aid (about $60,000 for his first year). For that, he remains grateful. Now a senior majoring in leadership studies, he speaks proudly of his institution.
Walker believes the CSS Profile gave Richmond crucial information about his family’s financial challenges, but completing the form over and over has been a drag. For some people, $25 is nothing. For Walker, paying his own rent for the first time this academic year, $25 is a tank of gas, or the monthly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud he has needed for his part-time jobs.
What bothered Walker the most, though, was the repetition of the ritual. Each year he had to badger his parents to share their tax information, and each year they asked him why it was necessary. “I’ve been constantly having to serve as this middleman between the institution and my parents,” he says. “It’s not like I could go to the file cabinet and get the information I needed. It was literally me sitting around waiting for them to give me the documents.”
After all that back and forth, Walker would fill in the blanks with the same dollar amounts as the previous year, proof that the family’s financial situation had not changed. “Straight zeroes,” he says. “A whole page of zeroes all the way down.”
The CSS Profile stirs up emotions that can linger. Just ask Sarah G. Hill, a junior at Webster University who grew up in rural Missouri and had to complete the form on her own. She cried when she first logged into the application: “All these questions lined up in front of me with words I didn’t understand.” She sent the form to American University — her dream school — but her financial-aid package left her with an impossible five-figure gap to cover. Later she realized that she had mistakenly over-reported the value of her parents’ pensions.
For many students, the CSS Profile is a hurdle coming after other hurdles, and the cumulative effects can be exhausting.
Had that one extra zero had made any difference? She still wonders.
If you talk to a dozen adults who work at colleges requiring the CSS Profile, you’ll probably hear the following at least once: “Students who struggle with an aid application aren’t ready for college-level work.”
That’s a privileged response, betraying ignorance of the challenges many applicants experience. Sure, it’s fair to ask if the CSS Profile is really that difficult to complete. But don’t forget to also ask: Difficult for whom? And under what circumstances?
Looking at a given hurdle in isolation only reveals so much. For many students, the CSS Profile is a hurdle coming after other hurdles, and the cumulative effects can be exhausting.
At Clayton High, outside St. Louis, Carolyn Blair never goes too long without thinking about the CSS Profile. In late January, a senior applying to Washington University emailed her to say he had just learned that he must complete the form: “I’ve never heard of it before.”
He had hit a snag. After entering his personal information, the student explained, the application “blocked” him, leaving him unable to finish it. “I am unsure if there is something I have to link myself, if I should contact Wash U, or simply have to wait for something like Fafsa to be processed,” he wrote. “Any help would be greatly appreciated.”
So Blair, the full-time problem-solver, scheduled a Zoom meeting with him. Soon she found herself in another conversation with another baffled soul confounded by the form.
Those conversations take up a lot of time. But what choice does she have?
It’s what the system requires.
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