For most students, the FAFSA does a good job of evaluating their family's financial strength. However, it does not do a good job of dealing with students who experience extenuating circumstances. Recognizing that, Congress has given authority to financial aid administrators to use their professional judgment to account for conditions that are out of the norm.
Typically, this authority is used to do one of three things:
- Declare a student independent for purposes of completing the FAFSA
- Adjust figures on the FAFSA to reflect changes in income or resources
- Adjust the Cost of Attendance (COA) to include non-standard educational expenses
Any adjustments made are at the discretion of staff in the financial aid office and must be supported with documentation that can withstand an audit.
The FAFSA Simplification Act (the Act) distinguishes between different categories of professional judgment by amending section 479A of the HEA. Special Circumstances refer to the financial situations (loss of a job, etc.) that justify an aid administrator adjusting data elements in the COA or in the EFC calculation. Unusual Circumstances refer to the conditions that justify an aid administrator making an adjustment to a student’s dependency status based on a unique situation (e.g., human trafficking, refugee or asylee status, parental abuse or abandonment, incarceration), more commonly referred to as a dependency override.
A student may have both a special circumstance and an unusual circumstance. Financial aid administrators (FAAs) may make adjustments that are appropriate to each student’s situation with appropriate documentation. Professional Judgment forms can be found on our forms page under the headline: Professional Judgement.
An aid administrator may use PJ on a case-by-case basis to adjust the student’s cost of attendance or the data used to calculate his or her EFC. This adjustment is valid only at the school making the change. The law gives some examples of special circumstances that MAY be considered (HEA Sec. 479A):
- Change in employment status, income, or assets
- Change in housing status (e.g., homelessness)
- Tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school
- Medical, dental, or nursing home expenses not covered by insurance
- Child or dependent care expenses
- Severe disability of the student or other member of the student’s household
- Parent passed away after the FAFSA was filed
- Other changes or adjustments that impact the student’s costs or ability to pay for college.
This is not an exhaustive list. Occasionally aid administrators have made decisions contrary to the professional judgment provision’s intent. These “unreasonable” judgments have included, for example, the reduction of EFCs based on recurring costs such as vacation expenses, tithing expenses, and standard living expenses (e.g. utilities, credit card expenses, children’s allowances, etc.). Aid administrators must make “reasonable” decisions that support the intent of the provision.
The FAFSA Simplification Act provides a clearer directive for FAAs to assist applicants with unusual circumstances to adjust dependency status on the FAFSA form to reflect students’ situations more accurately (dependency overrides).
Under HEA Sec. 480(d)(9), the FAFSA Simplification Act incorporated additional unusual circumstances to consider when a student is unable to contact a parent or where contact with parents poses a risk to such student.
Unusual circumstances include:
- Human trafficking, as described in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7101 et seq.);
- Legally granted refugee or asylum status;
- Parental abandonment or estrangement;
- Parental abuse or neglect;
- Student or parental incarceration.
In such cases a dependency override might be warranted based upon the student’s individual circumstances.
Unusual circumstances do not include:
- Parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education.
- Parents will not provide information for the FAFSA or verification.
- Parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes.
- Student demonstrates total self-sufficiency.