Perhaps the #1 most-frequently-asked question about the CSS/PROFILE is “How am I supposed to answer question 160A?” (“Enter the amount your parents think they will be able to pay for your 2017-18 college expenses.”) It’s a trap, right? A higher-stakes version of the “name your price” offers musicians put out there for concerts and downloads. Answer too high and you might be giving up aid; answer too low and your student might get turned down from the school. And you might be willing to pay more for some schools and less for others but it doesn’t allow for that level of granularity. So what’s the right answer?

Let’s take a step back (and a deep breath) and review how aid works. In order for schools to access federal aid programs (Pell grants, direct student loans, PLUS loans, etc.), they need to have a formula for granting aid. They can use the FAFSA EFC formula or base it on the CSS PROFILE, but it has to be based on real data. What your student writes in response to a question asking how much they think their parents think they can pay towards their college expenses is not real data. So you probably don’t need to worry about leaving money on the table based on your answer to that question.

On the other hand, what do colleges hate? They hate offering admission to a student and being turned down. Students turn down admission for lots of reasons, but one that’s pretty predictable is not getting enough financial aid. So an admissions officer who sees a CSS PROFILE form on which the student lists that parents are only expecting to contribute $5,000 annually and whose income, asset and application data lead them to a net cost of around $50,000 annually, might conclude that such a drastically need-gapped student would likely not accept admission.

What’s the best answer? A reasonable one. If you’ve told your student that you’re planning to pay, for example, 80% of the cost of in-state, then that’s what they should list there. Many schools won’t even look at this answer, and it isn’t part of the aid calculation, but it could be part of the decision whether or not to admit your student.