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The CSS PROFILE Racket

Published:  July 31, 2013
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When I was a grad student in Boston, I worked at the College Planning Center as an education advisor. Every day predominantly low-income, first generation students would come to the center to get free advice about the college application process. Although we never knew what students would ask, their questions and concerns almost always had to do with financial aid. For most students, this meant helping them understand and complete the FAFSA—the free application for federal student aid required by almost all colleges and universities. The FAFSA can be complicated enough for most students and families, but some students were also required to complete the College Board’s CSS Profile, an even-more complex, onerous, and expensive application.

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has been simplifying the FAFSA, which has been seen as an impediment to college enrollment—especially for low-income, first generation students who may be unfamiliar with the form. The Department has reduced the amount of questions, employed skip logic for the online FAFSA, and introduced an IRS data retrieval tool to help auto-populate a significant portion of the form. These efforts have significantly reduced the average time students and families take to complete the application (from 34 to 23 minutes), it has also increased the overall amount of applications submitted.

But the simplification of the FAFSA coupled with the “high tuition, high aid” model has pushed many institutions to require the PROFILE. In this model, the listed sticker price of the institution is high, but they publicize that they offer significant financial aid packages to low- and moderate-income students. Thus, the PROFILE is used by selective, high-priced institutions to determine institutional aid eligibility. Since FAFSA simplification has removed some questions regarding a family’s assets and savings, institutions have adopted the PROFILE to understand exactly how many assets a family owns before giving them aid. But the PROFILE asks way more questions than the FAFSA ever did.  

While the 2013-14 FAFSA has 101 possible questions, the PROFILE has at least 160 (much of them duplicating information required by the FAFSA), in addition to six worksheets and supplemental questions required by each institution where the student applies. Compared to the FAFSA, many of the questions on the PROFILE are mind-numbing in their complexity.  Take this question as an example:

Enter the total current value of this parent's tax-deferre retirement, pension, annuity, and savings plans. Include IRA, SRA Keogh, SEP, 401(a), 401(k), 403(b), 408, 457, 501(c) plans, etc. (Question PD-175A)

The PROFILE is also expensive, costing a student $25 for the first college listed, and $16 for each additional college.  While there are some fee waivers available, the student doesn’t know whether they qualify for one until they are finished filling out the time-consuming and complicated application. In my experience working with low-income students, only a couple qualified for fee waivers despite the fact that they came from families making less than $35,000. The first letter of the FAFSA stands for free, and for good reason. The last thing you want to do is add a fee onto a financial aid application.

It may be an institution’s prerogative to require a separate application for institutional aid, but many of the institutions participating in the PROFILE indicate that both the PROFILE and FAFSA are required forms to be awarded financial aid. This is misleading since all federal student aid funds are based on the FAFSA only. Not only that, the PROFILE is an extra roadblock for students, especially low-income, first generation students, who may not realize they have to complete an additional form to get their financial aid package. And if they do realize they need to jump through extra hoops, they may not be able to complete the form because it’s too complex, or may not be able to pay the $25 or more to submit the form.

Many of the colleges and universities that require the PROFILE claim that they want diverse student bodies and offer great financial aid packages to ensure that low- and moderate-income students are able to afford a world-class education. But requiring the PROFILE is an unnecessary burden on exactly the families that elite colleges and universities say they want to serve. The FAFSA should be the only required initial financial aid application for students. Once completed, depending on the information provided, an institution could ask a student to submit a CSS PROFILE for more information regarding institutional aid determination. If a student filled out the FAFSA and received an auto-zero expected family contribution (indicating the student is particularly needy), they shouldn’t have to go through the rigmarole of the PROFILE. 

Ideally though, if there has to be a financial aid application there should only be one—the FAFSA. The benefit of simplification for students should outweigh the institution’s desire to know a family’s exact monthly home mortgage payment (question PE-150A) or the amount of untaxed social security benefits they received (question PI-165A) or dozens more questions beyond the scope of the FAFSA.

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