understanding professional judgment in financial aid

Posted : February 12, 2008
Last Updated : January 15, 2014
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understanding professional judgment in financial aid

Professional judgment is the ability of a financial aid administrator to reassess a student's financial aid due to special or unusual circumstances. Because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) only requests certain information, the student or parent cannot provide details on the application about any special or unusual circumstances that could impact their ability to pay for college. Therefore, under federal law, financial aid administrators have the authority to take these circumstances into account and make changes to a student's financial aid application.

Special Circumstances
Special circumstances can refer to any financial situation that is not addressed in the application process. The following list includes common special circumstances in which professional judgment may apply. Keep in mind that financial aid administrators are not limited to these instances, nor are they required to use professional judgment for these instances.

  • Loss or reduction of employment, wages, or unemployment compensation
  • Tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school 
  • Medical or dental expenses not covered by insurance
  • Divorce, separation, or death of spouse or parent 

Unusual Circumstances/Dependency Overrides
Unusual circumstances refer to situations that may qualify for dependency overrides. Most students entering a postsecondary school straight from high school are considered financially dependent on their parents. This means their parents must provide information on the FAFSA. In unusual circumstances, a financial aid administrator can change a student's FAFSA status from dependent to independent. The following are examples of circumstances (in combination with other circumstances) that may merit a dependency override:

  • An abusive family environment
  • Abandonment by parents
  • Incarceration or institutionalization of both parents
  • Parents cannot be located

The following circumstances do not merit a dependency override (either alone or in combination):

  • Parents refuse to contribute to the student's education
  • Parents are unwilling to provide information on the FAFSA or for verification
  • Parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes
  • Student demonstrates total self-sufficiency

Required Documentation
Each school has its own requirements for using professional judgment. Usually the school has a form for the family to complete in order to offer more information about their situation. Financial aid administrators may also request additional documentation, which will vary depending on the situation. Additional documentation may include federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, receipts, death certificates, divorce decrees, etc.

If you feel like you have a special or unusual circumstance, you should contact the financial aid office at your school or the schools you are considering. Please keep in mind that professional judgment is administered on a case-by-case basis, and financial aid administrators have the authority to use professional judgment but are not required to do so.


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