Make rational decisions.

Beware of fraudsters and thieves.

Don’t give money to the wrong people.

All that’s good advice for any business, and colleges are no exception. Institutions with precious resources must carefully determine how to use them. Financial-aid offices play a large role in that task, deciding how much this student over here must pay compared with that student over there. It’s a tough job, requiring an eye for nuance and a stomach for making difficult judgment calls about a family’s wherewithal.

For decades, many financial-aid offices have relied on the College Board’s CSS Profile to help them cut through complexity. About 300 colleges, schools, and scholarship organizations use the detailed aid application to assess families’ financial need and allot institutional grants.

But it comes with a troubling trade-off: As The Chronicle reported in February, the form is especially onerous for low-income and first-generation students, who often must tackle it with little or no help from an adult. If the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, is 100 yards of frustration, the CSS Profile is a mile.

A cruel irony pervades the whole process. The CSS Profile, used by more than 400,000 students a year, is primarily a means of ensuring that affluent families pay their fair share, yet poor students are the ones it really puts through the wringer. Moreover, many institutions that require the form — mostly, highly selective private colleges — enroll relatively small shares of low-income students while rejecting the vast majority of applicants. That means many teenagers who could benefit greatly from need-based aid jump through this hoop in vain. Even if they get in, they might not get enough aid.

So is the form really necessary? What about for low-income applicants? Is there a better way to do it?

Some colleges have been asking those questions. A dozen enrollment officials say that The Chronicle’s reporting on the human impact of the CSS Profile has spurred new conversations about the requirement on their campuses, or informed ongoing discussions of its necessity. A few officials said they plan to reconsider their policies of collecting financial information from each and every aid applicant’s noncustodial parent, something most CSS Profile colleges require. (The Fafsa uses information from the custodial parent only.) Though that requirement might seem entirely reasonable, it often causes great anxiety for students, especially those who have little or no contact with their noncustodial parent.

Yes, the CSS Profile is a financial-aid application. But college officials are gaining a better understanding of how, for many students, it can be much more than that.

A longstanding requirement might seem perfectly reasonable. Until you start poking at it.

Last year, officials at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisc., took a hard look at the CSS Profile as part of a broad examination of campus policies. They wanted to identify potential barriers to enrollment. “We looked at parts of our operations that might have been unintentionally supporting institutional racism,” says Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment and communication. “We asked what we could do to dismantle structural barriers to make this already difficult process easier.”

Lawrence had been requiring all families seeking institutional assistance to complete the CSS Profile. But then the financial-aid staff went through the application question by question, asking “Do we need this? And, if we do, why?”

Next, they combed through all the questions they had deemed essential, and asked: If a first-generation student were answering this question on his or her own, how could we frame it — either by rewording it, or providing a prompt or instructive text — so that he or she could answer it successfully, with less stress?

Lawrence then built its own stripped-down financial-aid form in Slate, the customer-relationship management system, or CRM, that many colleges use to manage the entire admissions process. Lawrence’s form, which went live last fall, was designed to ask straightforward questions about the applicant’s family and parental assets.

The university now gives students the option of completing its application instead of the CSS Profile. About a third of aid applicants used the new form in the current cycle; most had to answer 35-50 questions (compared with about 100 or more on the CSS Profile, the length of which also varies by applicant).

Lawrence’s innovation was inspired by the University of Chicago, which, as The Chronicle previously reported, created its own streamlined institutional-aid form in Slate several years ago after concluding that the CSS Profile was hindering low-income families. Recently, Lawrence shared the programming code for its new application with another college that plans to create its own institutional-aid form — an example of how open sourcing can ease the burden of building such a form from scratch.

As of mid-March, the percentage of completed aid applications at Lawrence was up 6 percent over the same time last year, “with fewer leaks in the pipeline” from start to finish, Anselment says. Though Lawrence didn’t see much of a difference — in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic circumstances — between students who used one form versus the other, he believes it’s important to have an alternative to the CSS Profile.

For one thing, Lawrence’s form, like Chicago’s, is free; the CSS Profile is not. Though more than one in five students who use the latter form get fee waivers, the rest must pay $25 just for one college to consider their application for institutional aid, plus $16 for each additional college.

“That’s a little gross,” Anselment says.

The admissions realm is full of trade-offs. The drawbacks of requiring the CSS Profile are real. So, too, are the benefits.

Who gets those benefits, though, is complicated. First, let’s consider students. The CSS Profile really does help — some of them.

At Lawrence, lower middle-class families who don’t qualify for federal Pell Grants tend to get more institutional aid than they would if the university used only the Fafsa in its aid calculations, Anselment says. That’s because the Fafsa doesn’t pull in nearly as much information about a family’s financial picture. The nuances that the CSS Profile captures, Anselment says, “can unpack the financial stressors for a family that the Fafsa can’t.”

The CSS Profile, like Lawrence’s new aid form, includes a text box where applicants can share information about changes in their circumstances, such as a job loss or a major medical expense. Those details, many financial-aid officials say, can spark crucial conversations with families. The CSS Profile also asks applicants to itemize their assets, which are often misreported on the Fafsa; that information can affect a family’s eligibility for aid.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Dean Bentley, executive director of financial-aid engagement and services for the College Board, acknowledged the criticisms of the CSS Profile. “The application is more comprehensive,” he said. “But the payoff is worth it.” The average need-based award among all colleges using the CSS Profile is $45,000, according to the College Board.

Brian Lindeman, assistant vice president of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., says the CSS Profile enables his staff to understand families who have complex financial situations — and challenging ones. Like, say, those making $250,000 a year who qualify for a significant amount of need-based aid. The application, he says, helps the college make equitable decisions: “I don’t think we would be able to give up that valuable information we get from many students on the form.”

Macalester sometimes hears from families who say they don’t know what the form is, or don’t understand how to complete it. Over time the college has enhanced the communications it sends to students seeking institutional aid, following up with calls and texts. In some cases, it waives the requirement. “We really try to be as human and approachable as we can be,” Lindeman says.

He has thought a lot about the impact of the CSS Profile, particularly the noncustodial-parent form, on applicants. “It is a tough position we put some students in,” he says. “For our lowest-income students, a lot of what the Profile tells us is probably something we can do without.”

The challenge, as he describes it, is this: “We can’t write our instructions to say, ‘If you have a very simple, straightforward financial situation, don’t bother doing the Profile.’”

Though many financial-aid officials insist that the CSS Profile benefits students, let’s be perfectly clear. The CSS Profile largely benefits colleges, or else none would have ever required it in the first place. For one thing, it can help ever-busy financial-aid staffs operate more efficiently.

More important, the form helps colleges measure the relative need of applicants. But ultimately a family’s financial need is in the eye of those who determine what “need” means. The CSS Profile helps a college to justify what it calculates your need to be — and to say how much of your need it’s meeting.

The long, detailed applicationsays David Sheridan, enables colleges “to differentiate between the merely affluent and the truly wealthy.”

Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, previously worked in the institution’s undergraduate-aid office. The best argument for requiring the CSS Profile, he says, is that some people look a lot poorer on paper than they really are. Back in the 1990s he worked with a family that had an adjusted gross income below $20,000. But the CSS Profile revealed the parents were multimillionaires and co-owners of a professional basketball team.

Though that’s an extreme example, the fear of giving aid to so-called Pell-ionaires who don’t really need it is very real in higher education. Some families have resources that the Fafsa doesn’t reveal. Some shield their income and assets, even hiring financial consultants to help them do just that. And some families lie and cheat on forms.

Wealth can be obscured, but disadvantage is almost impossible to hide.

But even within a pool of honest aid applicants, the CSS Profile tends to benefit colleges by raising applicants’ expected family contribution, or EFC, above — often well above — their EFC as calculated on the Fafsa, which was designed to determine whether a student is eligible for a Pell Grant and qualifies for a federal-loan subsidy. “The contrasts between the EFC on the two forms are all that much more pronounced with wealthier families,” Sheridan says. “That means the full financial need that the college is going to meet is going to be much less by using the CSS Profile.”

The problem Sheridan sees: Wealth can be obscured, but disadvantage is almost impossible to hide. The same tool that colleges use to suss out intricate differences among wealthier families’ financial circumstances usually doesn’t reveal anything useful about poor applicants.

“When dealing with lower-income families, the Profile does not tell you anything else you need to know that the Fafsa doesn’t tell you,” he says. “By requiring the CSS Profile for everyone, colleges are basing their financial-aid policy on their affluent students. If your policy is driven by how many rich kids you have, you’re perhaps not creating a very welcoming environment for lower-income students.”

Perhaps the question for colleges is this: Does keeping a relatively small number of affluent students from receiving some need-based aid justify a requirement that disproportionately flusters, and even traumatizes, low-income students? Some college-access advocates have suggested that institutions devise a way to exclude low-income families from the CSS Profile requirement based on information they already have. Sheridan’s idea: “If students qualify for the fee waiver, don’t make them fill out the form.”

The catch? Though some students automatically get a fee waiver for the CSS Profile by virtue of receiving a fee waiver for the SAT, others don’t find out if they qualify for a waiver until they’ve completed the application.

The admissions-and-aid realm is conservative, wedded to old rituals and routines. At least it was until a disruptive pandemic forced colleges last year to adjust their processes in response to a reeling world. Then came a season of racial reckoning in America that compelled many institutions to engage in self-scrutiny.

It’s a perfect time to rethink how things work, says Meredith Twombly: “The interest in equity, diversity, and college access is so much more amplified. Trustees are taking notice of these issues in a way that they never have before.”

Twombly is vice president for admissions and financial aid at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., which recently hired its first-ever director of access and transition. Part of the job: Helping the university remove barriers to admission and aid.

The CSS Profile is just that, Twombly has long believed. She shares the prevalent concern about charging students to submit an aid form, even if some do get fee waivers: “Once you tell someone to ask for a waiver, that’s an access barrier right then and there.” She has wondered how many students don’t apply to Clark simply because it requires the application, which can take days or weeks to complete.

Now and then professors have come to Twombly seeking help with the form. “If faculty members are struggling with this, underserved populations are struggling with this,” she says. “Removing this requirement is a no-brainer.”

Clark plans to develop its own free institutional aid application this summer, Twombly says. Her hope is that the university will also stop requiring noncustodial parents to submit financial information.

Twombly, who worked at Hampshire College when it stopped considering ACT and SAT scores for all applicants years ago, believes in innovation, but she isn’t reckless. She agrees with many proponents of the CSS Profile who say the Fafsa alone doesn’t give colleges enough information to make sound aid decisions. But she thinks asking applicants a handful of additional questions — not 100 or more — is sufficient.

“This is a judgment call,” Twombly says. “We have to accept that we’re going to have to give something up. Is our priority perfect accounting principles, or is our priority access?”

Greg Mittonasked himself a similar question a few years ago when he and his colleagues at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pa., weighed the drawbacks of continuing to use the CSS Profile. They considered the effects of the requirement on applicants, as well as the impact on Muhlenberg’s ability to compete with other colleges, some of which didn’t require the CSS Profile. “It had become an obstruction for many families who were already stressed out about the Fafsa,” says Mitton, director of financial aid. “And it wasn’t really helping us yield students.”

The college had two hesitations. One was whether by discontinuing the CSS Profile — and foregoing some revealing pieces of information — the college would end up having to spend a lot more on aid. “We also had a gut concern about the company we keep,” Mitton says. “Were we going to be seen as less prestigious, less selective, if we didn’t require the same form that some of these other colleges did?”

Ultimately, Muhlenberg stopped requiring the CSS Profile and created its own institutional-aid form, which, though considerably shorter, gets at some of the same information. Mitton, who describes the financial impact of the change for the institution as negligible, says foregoing the CSS Profile resulted in a 1 to 2 percent increase in its discount rate. He believes the change has helped Muhlenberg enroll more underrepresented students.

The move, Mitton says, affirmed a truth about financial-aid work: There’s not just one right way to go about it. “Financial aid can’t be black and white, because it’s many shades of gray,” he says. “This is an imperfect process, but there are ways to do it that don’t involve adding significant hurdles for students.”

It’s hard to know how challenging a hurdle can be if you haven’t had to clear it yourself. Recently, nearly a dozen senior admissions officials at selective colleges requiring the CSS Profile told The Chronicle they had never filled it out; only one had even looked at it. That small but telling detail hints at the gulf between what admissions offices do and what aid offices do. The application process begins with warm let’s-make-your-dreams-come-true recruitment pitches and ends with the cold realities of applying for institutional aid.

“There’s definitely an out-of-sight, out-of-mind component to this,” an admissions official at a private college says of the CSS Profile. “All we know is ‘Just apply.’”

That official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, told The Chronicle he was troubled by the thought that his institution was inadvertently creating a barrier by requiring the grueling application. He said he was troubled, too, by the thought of some students having to track down a noncustodial parent they barely know, or with whom they have a fraught relationship, just to complete a financial-aid form. “We ask students to face challenges and be courageous, but some of this just seems unreasonable,” he says. “I don’t think what we’re doing is the right thing.”

Having to constantly prove your poverty… really is a traumatic experience.

Danny Tejadaknows all about the CSS Profile and the many documents one must gather to complete it — especially if you’re poor. As a teenager, he took time off from school to accompany his mother, whose English wasn’t great, on trips to the public-assistance office. Just so he could get all the paperwork he needed to complete the CSS Profile.

Like a “budget letter” totaling up the cash assistance and food stamps his parents received, how much public assistance went toward rent, and so on. Sometimes, they ended up getting the wrong document and had to go back to the office.

“Having to constantly prove your poverty,” Tejada says, “it really is a traumatic experience.”

Since graduating from college, Tejada has helped many low-income students complete the CSS Profile. Now director of college counseling at the Villa Duchesne and Oak School, in St. Louis, he tries to keep teenagers motivated during the process. He has seen the form deter students from applying to a college that requires it.

It’s not just that the CSS Profile is a long and complicated application. It’s that students must somehow fit it in with everything else going on in their lives, just as Tejada did when he was an uncertain teenager applying to college while working part-time at Burger King. “To complete this form, you have to keep track of all this stuff, passwords for each college’s portal, the documents you need,” he says. “This forces low-income students to grow up pretty fast, to become organizing masters when they still have to take care of siblings, cook meals for their family, and do homework.”

Completing the form guarantees nothing, though. A couple years ago, Tejada advised a middle-class Black student whom he had encouraged to applyto a private Northeastern college requiring the CSS Profile. The Fafsa showed her family’s EFC was about $2,000 a year; the college’s aid offer left them with a $20,000 gap.

Alarmed, Tejada called the college, which, he says, explained that the value of the family’s home kept her from getting more aid. At his behest, the family decided they simply couldn’t afford to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt

“There’s the burden of this very daunting application,” Tejada says, “and then colleges are like, ‘Hey, borrow against your home and break the bank to pay for this.’”

The CSS Profile is a financial-aid application, but it’s many other things, too. For some people, it’s a foreboding challenge looming up ahead, or a harrowing experience remembered years later. For others, it’s a symbol of all the riches and prosperity that higher education promises, and often fails to deliver, to students with great financial need.

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether the CSS Profile is essential. But one thing is clear: It’s not just an application.

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