filing the FAFSA

During the month of October, my son submitted nine college applications, which included a mix of private and public institutions, both in- and out-of-state. It was certainly a relief when he hit the button on the last of his applications, all submitted via the Common Application. While he was busily working on his applications, I focused my efforts on the financial aid application process, completing both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile Form (PROFILE). Last month, I shared details on completing the FAFSA, which is required by all colleges, in hopes that the process would be less intimidating to those first-time parents of an almost college student.

The PROFILE is the College Board’s online financial aid application. This form, and its corresponding formula (known as Institutional Methodology), was created by a group of colleges in order to determine student eligibility for the college’s own institutional grant funds. The PROFILE asks for similar information as the FAFSA does; however, it dives deeper and collects additional details in order to get a clearer picture of a family’s overall financial strength. Colleges can customize the PROFILE to collect the information they wish to collect, and some colleges ask for additional supplemental questions beyond the standard PROFILE form. Today, approximately 200 or so colleges, mostly private, require this additional financial aid application. The PROFILE has the reputation of being a bit of a bear, but since I completed the FAFSA first, completing the PROFILE wasn’t all that bad. Rest assured, you too can tackle the PROFILE with a little patience and advance planning!

Similar to the FAFSA, the PROFILE became available on October 1st and is completed online. Unlike the FAFSA, the PROFILE is not free—the College Board charges a fee to process this form. To begin the application, one must complete a registration process on the College Board’s website. Parents can set up their own username/password, but it is preferred that the student’s SAT login be used to access the PROFILE, as this will pre-populate some of the data fields. A series of demographic questions, such as parent marital status and student citizenship status, need to be answered during the registration process. In addition, you need to select the colleges that you wish to send the PROFILE data to. After registering, you will receive a CSS ID, and will have the option of viewing and printing both a customized pre-application worksheet and the PROFILE instructions. I printed out both documents, which served as invaluable reference tools when completing my son’s application. Just like completing the FAFSA, advance preparation should lend itself to a smoother overall process. Keep your taxes and investment statements handy, as well as the other resources that I outlined in last month’s post.

The PROFILE collects income and asset information beyond what the FAFSA asks for. It asks about your home equity, the value of your retirement funds, contributions to Flexible Spending Accounts, anticipated parent and student income for two years forward, and also gives you the opportunity to report some types of expenses, such as private school tuition paid, parent education loan debt, and the amount of your mortgage payment. Additionally, there is a section on the PROFILE that allows families to write an explanation of unusual circumstances that they may have. Then, there’s my favorite question: “Enter the amount that your parents think they will be able to pay for your 2017-18 college expenses.” Here, the college is trying to get a sense of what the family intends to contribute toward the cost of college during the upcoming academic year. I took a conservative approach when answering this question, as I didn’t want the school to think that I have more money available than I actually do.

Since there are so many questions to answer on the PROFILE, it’s nice that one can complete it in several sittings. It’s ok to save your work and come back to it at a later time. Once all the questions have been answered, you will be prompted for payment. The registration fee is $9 regardless of how many colleges need the data, plus there is a $16 fee for each college report. Therefore, submitting the PROFILE to one college costs $25 and two colleges cost $41. The latter was the case for me, as, of the nine colleges my son applied to, only two of them required the PROFILE. Once the PROFILE is submitted, one cannot make any edits to the form online, but must update the paper CSS Acknowledgement Form by hand and mail a copy of it to colleges. I therefore recommend you review the application carefully prior to finalizing your submission. The PROFILE is not as intuitive as the FAFSA, but please know that there is help available. Instructions are provided along the way via the “Help” icons, and assistance from the College Board is offered by phone and email.

If you want to tap into any available financial aid for college, then completing the FAFSA and PROFILE (if required) are the first steps that families need to take. Just set aside some time, follow the above tips, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and your financial aid application process should go smoothly! I encourage you to complete both the FAFSA and PROFILE as early as possible so that you meet any and all priority filing deadlines. Individual college processes may vary, so research each college’s website to learn about their requirements and deadlines.

Now that I have these two major applications behind me, I’ll start digging into the scholarship search process!

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Written by Jan Combs
Jan Combs is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, Jan was Director of Financial Aid at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University.