Paying For College 101: The CSS Curve Ball


If you have been keeping up with our prior posts, you now understand the importance of properly positioning your assets when you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  You should now understand how the student and parent’s income(s) and assets affect the FAFSA calculation and how these calculations dictate the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC).  Lastly, you should also understand that you may be able to attend a more expensive college at a lower net cost than a public university if you analyze how they supplement the Federal and State aid programs through their own endowments.  But what else do you need to be ready for if you wish to attend one of the 250+ schools that also require the completion of the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS/Profile)?

The CSS is a financial aid profile that is more intrusive than the FAFSA.  As a reminder, the FAFSA is a free application found at www.fafsa.ed.gov.  The FAFSA dictates how federal funds are awarded.  The CSS can be found at www.collegeboard.org, and there is a fee to process your information. At the same time, the CSS asks many more questions than the FAFSA (so, you pay for the right to be probed more thoroughly!).

So why would you pay the additional money and complete the CSS profile?  The answer is to receive the most aid possible at schools that require the profile.  Many of the 250+ schools requiring the CSS are also the same schools that provide a high percentage of aid to the qualified needy student.  For example if your FAFSA shows that you should pay $6,000 (EFC) for college, you may have an unmet need of $45,000 – $50,000 to attend one of the “Ivy” schools.  As we shared in a previous post, you may actually be able to attend one of these schools at a cost that is lower than your local state college.

There is one caveat.  Before these prestigious schools give you the additional money, they are going to want to make certain that you deserve it.  In short, they are going to ask you a lot more about your family financial situation and will count assets that FAFSA does not.  Interestingly, the College Board and the Federal Government have a slightly different interpretation of which assets you should be using to pay for college.

So, then, what does the CSS Profile count that FAFSA does not?  Here are a few examples:

  • The equity in your home
  • Non-qualified Annuities
  • Income and assets of a non-custodian parent
  • Two years of Income and Assets
  • Business Value
  • Assets held in name by another family member may be counted
  • Assets repositioned within two years

The differences between the FAFSA and CSS are important for you and your financial advisor to understand.  If you are planning on applying to a CSS Profile Institution, then you need to take action more than 2 years before applying.  This is because they require two years of returns and asset statements.  You also need to be careful of how much you have in your home’s equity or business value to be eligible for the most aid possible.  The CSS schools consider this equity as eligible for school cost.  Moving assets to an annuity to reduce your profile will also not work on the CSS as they will count this asset, whereas the FAFSA does not.  Currently, the cash value of your life insurance will often be excluded on both calculations.  If you have an older “equity oriented” life insurance policy, you may wish to maximize your contribution to minimize the CSS Profile.

As you can see, the CSS can trip many people up when they don’t prepare well in advance.  For this reason, I recommend that people sit down with their advisor or specialist in the areas of College Financial Aid planning when the student is in 9th or 10th grade.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to take action earlier as preparation is never a waste of time.

Todd Rhine is the owner of Todd Rhine Planning (http://www.toddrhine.com). He sports an impressive roll of financial certifications (including CWC, CFP®, RFC®, CLU, ChFC, IAR), and we asked him to write a series of articles related to financing college after seeing some of his results.