One application. Scores of questions. Untold hours of angst.

The most onerous form in admissions bores in the bones of your existence. Each year it sows confusion and multiplies misery among those seeking financial aid from many of the nation’s wealthiest colleges. It’s called the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile, for short. Some students call it burdensome, invasive, evil.

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 — spent four hours plodding through the application on the clunky computer in her basement but couldn’t get through the whole thing. This question stumped her: “Current value of tax-deferred and after-tax retirement, pension, annuity, and savings plans such as an 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 she wasn’t sure which kind, how much was in it, or how to access it.

Days later, she came to Carolyn Blair’s office with a face full of worry. “Carolyn,” she said, “help me.”

Blair, a college counselor at Clayton High School, just outside St. Louis, is a full-time problem-solver who blankets crises with calm. She had been doing what she could to help the woman, a South American immigrant with a sharp wit, a warm laugh, and little money. The woman mopped floors and scrubbed toilets for a living, hoping that a four-year college would give her youngest daughter, a senior at Clayton High, enough financial aid to enroll.

But there was little chance unless she completed the tedious form. “It’s confusing, because my English is not, OK, say, good enough to understand the terms,” the mother told Blair. “A person born and raised in this country probably don’t have the same difficulties with it as I do.”

“Actually,” Blair said, “they do.”

The complicated form flummoxes the poor, the prosperous, and the in between — but particularly the poor. For those with little or no money for college, the stakes are especially high. The CSS Profile is a gatekeeper for funds that many of the wealthiest colleges give out each year.

About 300 colleges, schools, and scholarship organizations require students seeking institutional aid to complete the online application. The form, run by the College Board, is meant to provide a full picture of an applicant’s financial situation and family background, which helps colleges determine their aid package.

The CSS Profile is more detailed than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. The latter form, which families use to get government grants and loans, has long been seen as a barrier to college access. But if the Fafsa is a 100 yards of difficulty, the CSS Profile is a mile.

And unlike the federal form, it’s not free for everyone. The College Board provides fee waivers for some low-income students; otherwise families pay $25 to submit the form to one college, then $16 a pop for each additional one.

Though a few institutions have stopped requiring the CSS Profile, financial-aid officials predict that more will adopt it before the simplified Fafsa arrives, in 2022. The CSS Profile might well become something more applicants have to contend with.

This isn’t just a story about a bureaucratic bother, though. This is a story about wrung-out teenagers, broken families, and the relentless grip of poverty — a story about how the higher-education complex often serves affluent students from two-parent homes better than it serves everyone else.

The CSS Profile: It’s what the system requires. But there’s a human cost.

Just so we’re clear, the application — used by more than 400,000 students annually — isn’t evil or ill-intentioned. It helps colleges and scholarship organizations allot more than $9 billion a year to students, often unlocking doors to a new life.

But the same process that expands opportunity for some applicants contracts it for others. Low-income and first-generation applicants who could benefit greatly by submitting the form often struggle to complete it. And sometimes they give up.

Some students don’t give up at all. They simply can’t submit the CSS Profile because of circumstances beyond their control.

Like the twin sisters Carolyn Blair advised a few years ago. They were high-achieving Black students, younger versions of herself. They took Advanced Placement courses, earned stellar grades, and qualified for a federal Pell Grant, which helps families with financial need. They applied to numerous colleges, including wealthy private institutions.

Blair, Clayton High’s longtime director of counseling services, knew the students had a great chance of getting substantial need-based grants from those institutions. They just had to fill out the CSS Profile. As their story would reveal, a mere chore for some is a dead end for others.

I do this for a living, she thought. What was this like for everyone else?

Helping students apply for aid is a crucial part of Blair’s job. But she struggled to complete the CSS Profile for one of her sons a while back. After realizing she had made a mistake on the form, she was indignant. I do this for a living, she thought. What was this like for everyone else?

Each year Blair warns parents of juniors about the application in advance: “When you get to the CSS Profile, colleges are going to ask you to chop off your finger and mail it to them.”

Even so, the application takes many seniors by surprise. Most families hear about the Fafsa long before filling it out. Many schools offer Fafsa workshops and talk it up at financial-aid nights. But the CSS Profile, required by a fraction of colleges, gets relatively little fanfare. “It’s like a secret process,” Blair says.

Clayton High, a public school, serves many affluent students, some of whom roll up in gleaming Hummers and Teslas. Yet nearly a quarter of the school’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches; some are homeless.

Those disparities play out in the financial-aid process. Some parents, like the law professor who called Blair because the CSS Profile was flustering him, have the time and inclination to reach out when they hit snags.

But parents who drive buses or collect garbage or ring up groceries for a living tend to keep questions to themselves. In her experience, they’re reluctant to put anyone out, if they’re even tuned in at all.

This is perhaps the most important thing to know about the CSS Profile: Teenagers, especially in lower-income families, are often the ones who fill out the form. They’re the ones digging up tax forms and asking reluctant parents for their Social Security number. They’re the ones being asked to list “Social Security benefits received for all family members, except any who will be enrolled in college in 2021-22, that were not reported on a tax return,” and “Alimony Received (including, but not limited to, amounts reported on a tax return),” and to answer this: “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 complete it. But some students don’t know that it exists, many college counselors say; for other students, even just hearing about it is a deal breaker, convincing them not to apply to a college that requires it.

Those who don’t finish the form sometimes lack an understanding of how much money is on the line, or they succumb to competing priorities. “They usually don’t come in and say that they’ve stopped — they just stop,” Blair says. “And it takes all those colleges off table.”

That’s what happened with 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 acceptances, some from wealthy colleges. They seemed to be on top of everything.

But when Blair saw their aid letters from those colleges, she was alarmed. Their packages included only federal aid — no institutional grants. Soon she learned that the family hadn’t completed the CSS Profile.

Why? The answer had to do with the fact that the parents were divorced.

The Fafsa asks for information from the custodial parent only, but a majority of institutions using the CSS Profile collect information from noncustodial parents, too. They must create a College Board account, fill out a supplementary form called the Noncustodial Parent Profile, and provide tax documents.

It’s what the system requires.

The young women, who lived with their mother, told Blair that their father never filled out the noncustodial-parent form. Just didn’t do it.

Though 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 complete the form separately, don’t get access each other’s information.)

In this case, Blair concluded, the father’s failure to complete the form had likely shortened his daughters’ list of affordable options for college. “They were teenagers,” she says, “who didn’t have agency to make an adult do something he didn’t want to do.”

With their senior year slipping away, the sisters applied to other colleges, hoping to find a campus with aid to spare. They both ended up choosing the University of Missouri at Columbia, which gave them aid packages heavy on loans. When Blair saw the amounts, she winced.

Recently, Blair dug up an old copy of the twins’ Student Aid Report, which applicants get after completing the Fafsa. It showed that their expected family contribution, or EFC, for college was $1,900 a year.

They’re kids. You can’t just be like, ‘Here’s a million-dollar balloon — don’t pop it.’

She still believes that she had failed them by not checking in with them constantly. Had she known their father wasn’t filling out the form, she would’ve called him and urged him to do so before it was too late. Had he done so, she believes they would’ve ended up with substantial need-based grants — and a lot less debt to repay.

That experience imprinted a lesson: She couldn’t expect every teenager to handle the requirements of the CSS Profile on their own.

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

Self-sufficiency is a good thing. But how self-sufficient should a teenager have to be just to apply for aid?

Elisa Wyke, a high-school senior in Richmond, Tex., asked herself that while tackling 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 on her own, whether it was paying bills or applying for financial aid.

Though some parents dutifully untangle every knot their children encounter, it’s important to remember that many, many students end up completing the CSS Profile on their own. “I had to be the adult in this situation,” Wyke says. “I didn’t get to be the kid and be like, ‘Mom, can you fill out this form for me?’”

The CSS Profile opens each year on October 1. “You should submit no later than two weeks before the EARLIEST priority filing date specified by your colleges,” the College Board’s website explains. That’s one complication for students: Many colleges have multiple aid deadlines, and those deadlines vary from campus to campus.

Wyke, whose mother earns a modest income as a nurse, knew the importance of completing the application, required by some colleges on her list that could give her a lot of aid. When she first logged into the CSS Profile, she saw that it was longer and more detailed than the Fafsa.

But the worst part, she says, was the lack of consistency. “Every college has its own way of interacting with the CSS Profile, and you don’t figure it 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 get an identical copy.

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The CSS Profile works differently. Colleges can add customized questions (How much are your monthly car payments?) and set their own requirements for transmitting information — and ask for more of it.

After students complete the CSS Profile, they must upload required tax and financial documents to the Institutional Documentation Services (IDOC) to submit them to various colleges. Students select the colleges to which they wish to send their completed form 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. And some require students to complete additional financial-aid forms, too.

To complete the CSS Profile, Wyke rounded up her mother’s 2019 federal tax return, tax transcript, and W-2 form. She found the required records of her mother’s untaxed income and bank statements.

The question about the current market value of her home puzzled her. She found her mother’s mortgage documents but wasn’t sure how to read them. Here was the appraisal. Here was the original price.

Her mother had two mortgages, she discovered. So Wyke added the two amounts.

Was this right?

She totaled up her mother’s liquid assets.

She totaled up two years of medical and dental expenses that were not covered by insurance.

She gathered non-filing letters proving that neither she nor her father — who is disabled — had paid taxes in 2019.

This form is not made for students like me, Wyke kept thinking.

In some cases, students completing the CSS Profile need access to a scanner to upload images of documents. Some might need a printer, too. Reliable internet service, something Wyke lacks at home, is a must. While working on the form, she had to keep pausing to restart her router.

“It was extremely tiring,” she said of completing the form.

Wyke was accepted by the University of Chicago, which gave her a substantial amount of aid. She is thrilled.

But the process took something out of her, causing her to reflect on its meaning. “A lot of parents want to help their kids, but the system does not teach the parent — it teaches the student,” Wyke says. “And it makes the process a lot more stressful for students themselves. To succeed in the application process, you either have to be fully self-sufficient or fully rich. And you shouldn’t have to be either extreme.”

Wyke was lucky. She had help from a knowledgeable college adviser from the Academic Success Program, a nonprofit group that guides students through the application process. But many of her friends did not. One decided against completing the CSS Profile due to exhaustion after finishing the Fafsa and being selected for verification, a grueling process that disproportionately affects applicants with little money.

“That’s the thing,” Wyke says, “if you’re a low-income student, this process heaps more and more on top of you.”

The heaviest weight falls on students who don’t live in a nuclear family. Students from single-parent homes. Students whose parents had ugly separations. Students with a parent who’s abusive or imprisoned or nowhere to be found. Whose parents are dead. Who live with siblings or grandparents or legal guardians or foster parents — or with no one.

There are many reasons you might need to request a waiver for the CSS Profile’s noncustodial-parent requirement. One college counselor calls the process “the worst and most demeaning thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sergio Acosta, a high-school senior in Thornton, Colo., seconds that. Having to describe his complex relationship with his father, he says, “pushed me into emotional trauma.”

Acosta was born in the U.S. but spent years living in Mexico with his family. He moved back to the 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 cleaning a medical clinic. At the grocery store, the teenager would eye colorful boxes of Pop-Tarts but forced himself not to ask his mother to spend money on them.

Now, Acosta’s family lives in a three-bedroom apartment, and he works part-time as a host at an Outback Steakhouse, earning $8.08 an hour, plus another $35 to $40 a night in shared tips. That covers his car insurance, personal expenses, and part of the rent. He gets home by 10 p.m., with the sharp smell of the restaurant clinging to his clothes, and often stays up late doing homework.

After completing the Fafsa, Acosta saw that his expected family contribution for college is $5,374 annually. He applied to a dozen selective colleges, half of which required the CSS Profile. I have no idea at all, he thought when he saw the questions, what this is asking me.

The Fafsa is available in Spanish, but the CSS Profile is not. Acosta’s mother speaks little English, and he struggled to explain to her why colleges were asking for some pieces of information, because he didn’t understand why himself.

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Lincoln Agnew for The Chronicle

He got guidance from Natalee Deaette, program director for Access Opportunity, an organization that helps high-achieving, low-income students. A recent college graduate, she completed the CSS Profile for herself not too long ago. The hardest part was all the required follow-up after submitting the form, not knowing when she would be finished.

Her mother was receiving food stamps and had no income. Still, one college required the family to complete a supplemental form documenting their monthly expenditures — rent, groceries, clothes — and resources, including small sums of money a grandmother gave them.

“I had to open this one door,” Deaette says of the form, “but then it brought me to all these other doors that had to be opened.”

Last fall she helped Acosta understand the door he would have to open: the noncustodial-parent waiver.

Though a majority of institutions that use the CSS Profile require noncustodial parents to complete their own form, students who have no contact with that parent can ask colleges to waive the requirement. They do so by completing the College Board’s official waiver-request form, which says that institutions typically consider the requests in cases of “documented abuse,” legal orders limiting the parent’s contact with the child, or “no contact or support ever received from the noncustodial parent.” Colleges might ask for documentation, such as court documents or legal orders.

It’s what the system requires.

As Acosta learned, some colleges accept the College Board’s 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 in IDOC.

Others told him to upload it to their institution’s online portal.

Some told him to email it to the financial-aid office.

Acosta sought a waiver because his father hadn’t been living with, or financially supporting, his family for years. And he sought a waiver because last year his father was arrested and imprisoned in Mexico.

When Acosta submitted his waiver request to Boston College, which uses its own form, he forgot to attach the required “personal account” of his situation describing why he thought a waiver was necessary (“Be sure to provide as much detail as possible,” the prompt says).

In a January 15 email to Acosta, the college’s financial-aid office said that it couldn’t determine if a waiver were necessary without a signed letter from him or his custodial parent. “We only grant these types of waivers,” the email said, “in cases when it is impossible or harmful for a student to be in contact with his or her noncustodial parents (i.e. there is a history of abuse).”

The instructions for the statement Boston College requests are essentially the same as those at other colleges, yet Acosta perceived that he was being asked to write something more thorough, and perhaps more convincing, than the statements he had submitted elsewhere. But what?

His father, he told The Chronicle in late January, never abused him physically. But there were times when he wouldn’t hear from his father for months, times when his father said hurtful things.

He put off writing the statement for a couple weeks, steeling himself for the emotions the task would surely unbottle.

How much difficulty would you endure if you knew that, in the end, you were guaranteed a rainbow ride to a big pot of gold?

A lot, for sure.

But what if there were no guarantee at all — just a chance, perhaps a small one, that things would work out?

Many low-income students who plow through the CSS Profile each year grapple with the thought that they might not even get into any of the colleges that require it. “It makes you question the purpose,” Acosta says. “Why put a lot of time into something that might not even end up happening?”

But he kept going.

Late one night in February, Acosta wrote a personal statement describing his relationship with his father, how they sometimes argued, how his father once cursed at him and “told me … that he didn’t need me.”

Upset, Acosta had to take a break before finishing the statement, in which he explained that his father was in prison and that their interactions were limited to brief phone calls. “I framed it so that an empathetic reader,” he says, “could put themselves in my shoes.”

Later, Acosta shared a polished two-page draft with Deaette, who told him it was too long. She knew that financial-aid officials wouldn’t want to read a personal essay about what he had learned from his experiences. She helped him trim the statement to a half page.

Submitting a waiver request does not guarantee its approval. And colleges often request more information from students.

In the January email to Acosta, Boston College told him that he must 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 his school counselor, as required by the form. So he asked the school psychologist, who told him she had to get approval to do it.

He waited to hear back. Kept waiting.

Finally, Acosta asked Deaette to write the letter. In it she explained that Acosta’s father had “sporadic, inconsistent, and unpredictable” contact with him, and that, because he is incarcerated, “he does not have an income and cannot submit financial-aid applications.”

Each waiver-request form required signatures from Acosta and his mother. But he didn’t have a printer, and couldn’t go to a library because Covid-19 shut all the ones in his area down. So he printed the documents at work and brought them home for his mother to sign. Then he scanned them with his phone, using an app that costs $9.99 a month, emailed them to himself, and then submitted them to each college.

Acosta didn’t qualify for a fee waiver for the CSS Profile because his mother’s earnings combined with his own put them over the threshold for eligibility. So he picked up extra shifts at work to pay the fees.

This winter Acosta questioned whether he should go to college at all. He met a recruiter for the U.S. Marine Corps who explained all the benefits he would get if he joined. This is great, he thought.

But he didn’t want to trash all the late nights he spent filling out applications for college. He applied for two state-run scholarships.

By mid-February, three colleges had indicated that they needed more information from him to complete the CSS Profile. Worn out, he imagined pressing a button that would give him a break for a day or two.

“I feel overwhelmed right now,” he said one afternoon before his shift at Outback. “It’s just roadblock after roadblock.”

Let’s look at this roadblock from the college side. It’s important to understand why many admissions and financial-aid officials describe the CSS Profile as a flawed but necessary tool.

Here’s a telling moment: During a session at a national conference in Louisville, Ky., in 2019, an admissions officer from the California Institute of Technology called the form “laborious and tedious” for families, saying “it is ridiculous, and we understand that it is.”

Caltech, he added, had no plans to stop using the form.

That’s because the application serves an imperative: determining how to allocate finite resources efficiently and fairly among applicants from very different circumstances. Two students might have parents who make a total of $250,000 a year, but one might have a more complex financial situation — and greater financial need — than the other.

Though many colleges use the federal-aid form to allot institutional aid, others deem it insufficient. “The Fafsa doesn’t give us the same level of detail in assessing a family’s financial position or ability to pay,” says John L. Mahoney, vice provost for enrollment management at Boston College. “The Profile gives us additional information, a larger lens we can use to award funding based on the family’s financial position.”

When Mahoney joined the admissions field in the mid-1980s, colleges had long been using a standard system developed by the College Board’s College Scholarship Service, or CSS, to measure a student’s financial need. In the 1950s, the CSS created a form that collected information on income and assets, which helped colleges determine a family’s ability to pay for college. Students used the form to apply for both federal and institutional aid. The CSS charged applicants a fee for each college the information was sent to.

Then came the 1992 Higher Education Act reauthorization, which mandated the use of a free aid application — the Fafsa — and a federal methodology for needs analysis. The CSS form went out the window. But because some colleges found the new methodology lacking, the CSS created the CSS Profile, which became a widely used means of distributing institutional aid.

It’s more precise than the Fafsa, which was designed to determine whether a student is eligible for a Pell Grant and qualifies for a federal-loan subsidy. The Fafsa doesn’t ask about home equity, for instance; the CSS Profile does. (“That is, in our minds, a resource that parents have to draw upon,” Mahoney says.) The Fafsa tells colleges what a family’s adjusted gross income is; the CSS Profile digs into nuances, getting at details such as business income and rental losses.

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Lincoln Agnew for The Chronicle

In the current admissions cycle, the CSS Profile gives colleges detailed information about a family’s 2019 income; it also provides an estimate of their 2020 income and a projection of their 2021 income. The form prompts families to explain how their financial circumstances might have changed. That context might include retirements, promotions, medical expenses, or tuition for a sibling’s college.

Boston College, which doesn’t consider applicants’ financial circumstances in admissions, gave $157 million in need-based grants to students in fiscal year 2020. “We want to make our limited resources go as far as they can,” Mahoney says. “We’re committed to funding low-income students, but we also want to make sure we’re being good stewards of the college’s money.”

The CSS Profile, some admissions and aid officials say, provides a level of verification in a world where some families lie and hide assets in hopes of convincing colleges to give them more aid than they might really need. The same world in which some noncustodial parents with the means to help pay for college balk at the notion that they will do so.

“Boston College believes that the primary responsibility for educational expenses lies with the student and family,” its noncustodial-parent form says. “Therefore, both biological parents must submit financial information to establish a student’s eligibility for financial aid.”

The college often waives that requirement for students who haven’t been in contact with the noncustodial parent for years, or in cases where contacting the noncustodial parent might put an applicant at risk of harm, Mahoney says. But they’ve got to complete a waiver-request form first.

“I know that falls very hard — it falls disproportionately hard — on first-generation kids, on low-income kids,” he says.

Mahoney, a former prep-school English teacher, got into admissions because he likes helping young people — not making them miserable. Each March, he and his colleagues contact a list of accepted applicants who haven’t completed the college’s financial-aid process. The goal is to help students who, based on Pell eligibility or other factors, would likely end up getting a lot of institutional aid.

Often, the issue is that a noncustodial parent hasn’t completed his or her part of the CSS Profile. Whatever the case, Mahoney tries to be comforting and respectful in those chats, which inevitably involve personal questions: “We’re entering a deeply personal parental situation, so we’ve got to be thoughtful and sensitive.”

Boston College trains its admissions and aid officers to have those delicate conversations. But, yes, those conversations are one step in a process designed, in part, to protect the college’s resources.

“We are very exacting,” Mahoney says.

Financial aid is a balancing act.

The tension is clear: More information can help colleges, but asking for too much can hinder families. How much detail does a financial-aid office really need to make a sound decision? Where’s the line between due diligence and overkill?

Such questions led James G. Nondorf about seven years ago to question the University of Chicago’s longstanding use of the CSS Profile.

Nondorf, Chicago’s dean of admissions and financial aid, had heard many complaints about the application, especially the noncustodial-parent requirement, from college counselors who work with vulnerable students. He came to believe that the form wasn’t worth the trouble: “We were punishing the very people that we had all this financial aid for. We were asking poor people to do something that’s hard for someone with a Ph.D.”

Amanda Fijal, assistant vice president for financial aid and enrollment technology, shared Nondorf’s concern that the CSS Profile was working against the university’s efforts to enroll more low-income and first-generation students. 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.

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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.”

The form is too long, too complicated, and too expensive. Those are the main criticisms of the CSS Profile.

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.

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Lincoln Agnew for The Chronicle

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.”

Some burdens aren’t quantifiable. And not all costs have to do with money.

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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