Professional Judgment Information

Professional judgment, as defined by the National Association of Federal Student Aid Administrators (NASFAA), is the discretion granted to financial aid administrators (FAA) by law to differentiate an individual student from a group of students to override dependency status based on unusual circumstances and/or make adjustments to a student’s need analysis. An FAA decides if adjustments to standard components of need are warranted due to special circumstances (NASFAA, 2023).

Beginning with the 2023/2024 academic year, professional judgment rules and guidance change significantly. The FAFSA Simplification Act now distinguishes between two different categories of professional judgment by amending section 479A of the HEA. These are special circumstances and unusual circumstances.

  • Special Circumstances refer to the financial situations (loss of a job, etc.) that justify an aid administrator adjusting data elements in the Cost of Attendance (COA) or in the expected family contribution (EFC) calculation. Both of these items are determined when a student files a FAFSA.
  • 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 abandonment, incarceration), more commonly referred to as a dependency override.
    • For the 2023-24 award year, applicants must still indicate an unusual circumstance and request a determination of independence with their school to allow processing of their FAFSA form.
    • Starting with the 2024-25 award year, both initial and renewal applicants who indicate they have an unusual circumstance on their FAFSA form will submit their application under a provisional independent status. This will allow applicants to receive a Student Aid Index (SAI) with an estimate of their Federal student aid eligibility, subject to a final determination by their school.

A student may have both a special circumstance and an unusual circumstance. FAAs may make adjustments that are appropriate to a student’s situation with proper and suitable documentation.

Acceptable Documentation

In general, when determining a student’s special or unusual circumstance(s), or in verifying homeless or foster youth status, schools must ensure that any supporting documentation they collect is adequate to substantiate the student’s— and, as applicable, the parent’s or spouse’s— circumstances. The Act updates, but does not limit, the types of adequate documentation that a school may request from the student.

Acceptable documentation may include but is not limited to:

  • A documented interview between the student and the financial aid administrator; or
  • Supplementary information, as necessary, about the financial status or personal circumstances of eligible applicants as it relates to the special circumstances.

Acceptable documentation may include but is not limited to:

  • A documented interview between the student and the financial aid administrator;
  • Submission of a court order or official Federal or State documentation that the students’ parents or legal guardian are incarcerated;
  • A documented phone call or written statement from an attorney, a guardian ad litem, a court-appointed special advocate (or similar), or a representative of a TRiO or GEAR UP program that confirms the circumstances and the person’s relationship to the student;
  • A documented determination of independence made by a financial aid administrator at another institution in the same or a prior award year; or
  • Utility bills, health insurance, or other documents that demonstrate a separation from parents or legal guardians.

Acceptable documentation may also include a documented phone call or written statement, which confirms the unusual circumstances with:

  • A State, county, or Tribal welfare agency;
  • An independent living case worker who supports current and former foster youth with the transition to adulthood; or
  • A public or private agency, facility, or program servicing the victims of abuse, neglect, assault, or violence.

Examples of Unusual Circumstances & Supporting Documentation

In determining independence due to homelessness, Financial Aid Administrators (FAAs) must consider documentation from the following entities—provided through a documented phone call, written statement, or verifiable electronic data match—to be adequate:

  • A local educational agency homeless liaison, as designated by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 11432(g)(1)(J)(ii)), or a designee of the liaison;
  • The director of an emergency or transitional shelter, street outreach program, homeless youth drop-in center, or other program serving individuals who are experiencing homelessness, or a designee of the director;
  • The director of a Federal TRIO program or a Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate program (GEAR UP) grant, or a designee of the director; or
  • A financial aid administrator at another institution who documented the student’s circumstance in the same or a prior award year.

In the absence of documentation from any of the individuals described above, FAAs must make a case-by-case determination:

  • Based upon a written statement from, or a documented interview with, the student that confirms that they are an unaccompanied homeless youth, or unaccompanied, at risk of homelessness, and self-supporting; and
  • Made without regard to the reasons that the student is unaccompanied and/or homeless.

Foster care youth are considered those who answer “Yes” to the FAFSA question “At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?” FAAs must consider any of the following documentation to be adequate in the absence of conflicting information:

  • Submission of a court order or official State documentation that the student received Federal or State support in foster care;
  • A documented phone call or a written statement from an attorney, guardian ad litem, or Court Appointed Special Advocate;
  • Verification of the student’s eligibility for an education and training voucher under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program under section 477 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 677); or
  • A documented phone call or written statement from a financial aid administrator who documented the student’s circumstance in the same or a prior award year.

FAAs must also consider a phone call, written statement, or verifiable electronic data match from one of the following sources to be adequate documentation:

  • A State, county, or Tribal agency administering a program under part B or E of title IV of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 621 et seq. and 670 et seq.);
  • A State Medicaid agency; or
  • A public or private foster care placing agency or foster care facility or placement.

All supporting documentation, including documented interviews, used in the financial aid administrator’s final determination must be maintained in the student’s file for a minimum of 3 years after their last term of enrollment. This is in line with standard record keeping requirements outlined under 34 CFR 668.24.

The Act codifies previous guidance from the Department (as issued in earlier Dear Colleague Letters) to use statutory authority to exercise professional judgment during a disaster, emergency, or economic downturn.

Financial aid administrators may, during a qualifying emergency:

  • Determine that the income earned from work for an applicant is zero, if the applicant can provide paper or electronic documentation of receipt of unemployment benefits or confirmation that an application for unemployment benefits was submitted; and
  • Make additional appropriate adjustments to the income earned from work for a student, parent, or spouse, as applicable, based on the totality of the family’s situation, including consideration of unemployment benefits.

Acceptable documentation of unemployment should be submitted not more than 90 days from the date it was issued. However, institutions may use discretion to accept documentation older than 90 days under an institution’s general professional judgment authority if they do not have reason to believe there is conflicting information.

Further, the Department will adjust the program review selection model to account for an increase in the use of professional judgment by schools during the award years applicable to the qualifying emergency.

Important to Note:

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. Like other types of professional judgments, institutions must make students aware of their ability to request an adjustment for unusual circumstances by publicly posting the option on their website.

Beginning with the 2023-24 award year and going forward:

  • institutions must review all requests for a determination of independence as quickly as practicable, but no later than 60 days after the student enrolls.
  • renewal applicants with an eligible homeless youth, foster care youth, orphan, ward of the court, emancipated minor, or legal guardianship flag on their 2022-23 FAFSA form will have their answers to these questions carried over and pre-populated into their 2023-24 FAFSA form. Other answers to dependency questions (ex. age, dependent children, veteran status) continue to carry over to the 2023-24 FAFSA form.
  • Renewal applicants must still affirm that their previous answers to the dependency questions are correct and applicable prior to submitting their FAFSA form.

Students should contact the Financial Aid Office if they are experiencing special and/or unusual circumstances as soon as possible once a FAFSA form is submitted. The Financial Aid Office will then conduct an interview with the student to determine preliminary eligibility and if additional documentation is required.