Special circumstances refers to anything in the applicant’s financial situation that is not reflected on the FAFSA or CSS Profile. The Profile has an actual space for applicants to detail special circumstances. For FAFSA schools, applicants may have to appeal their aid award and go through the Professional Judgment (PJ) process. If this might apply to you, you should understand the decision-making criteria and process so that special circumstances you’re detailing are in fact special circumstances in the financial aid world.
The Higher Education Act and its various reauthorizations list some examples of special circumstances: “elementary or secondary school tuition, medical or dental or nursing home expenses not covered by insurance, unusually high child care costs, being homeless or a dislocated worker, recent unemployment of a family member, or other changes in the family’s income or assets.” However, there is a “judgment” element of PJ: “Use of professional judgment is neither limited to nor required for the situations mentioned.” As the FAFSA transitioned to using prior-prior income data, the Department of Education gave guidance to financial aid administrators to expect more PJ cases.
While there is some judgment involved, there are also a number of requirements for PJ:
- The reason for the adjustment must be documented, and must apply only to the student and not to a class of students. For example, in the case of a job loss, the family would need to provide documentation such as a termination letter.
- Adjustments can only be made to either the cost of attendance or values of data inputs into the EFC formula, not to the formula calculation itself. In the case of a family illness, for example, the administrator might reduce assumed income from the ill person or reduce assets based on projected medical expenses.
- Students may not be deemed independent for aid purposes based on parents’ refusal to provide financial support for education or to complete the FAFSA. However, such students may be eligible to borrow larger amounts under federal loan programs.
- Calculations may not be adjusted based on recurring vacation, tithing or other standard living expenses.
Financial aid administrators are required not only to document any adjustments they make, but to resolve any conflicting information that they receive. So the onus will be on you to document your situation. And remember that since we’re talking about the FAFSA and Profile, all of this refers to need-based awards, not merit.
This is a big topic so for today I’m going to focus on general rules. Keep in mind the FAFSA rules are different from the CSS Profile rules; below is FAFSA only.
The custodial parent for the FAFSA can be different than the custodial parent in the divorce decree and/or different from who claims the student as a dependent on their tax return. The FAFSA defines the custodial parent as “The parent that you lived with most Continue reading FAFSA for Divorced Parents
Step 1 in figuring out how to pay for college is estimating your EFC. You can use the FAFSA4caster, or the more detailed EFC Formula Guide (note that’s for 2018-2019; the 2019-2020 version should be released this month). But EFC is just a starting point: schools aren’t required to meet your need, and they certainly aren’t required to meet it through gift aid. That’s why net cost and aid packaging are important concepts to understand. Continue reading EFC, Net Cost and Aid Packaging
On our recent college odyssey, we heard about a lot of need-blind admissions policies, and no loan/100% of need met financial aid policies. These are mostly good things but perhaps not as good as they sound on the surface, so it’s worth unpacking them. Continue reading Need-Blind, No Loan, 100% Need Met Policies
With the change to prior-prior tax year reporting on the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE, it seems that keeping track of what data dates pertain to what is becoming increasingly complicated. This table summarizes the relevant years or dates for each school year.
|FAFSA/ PROFILE Income Year
|Assets As Of October*
|AOTC Tax Year**
* Assets are as of the filing date, which may be as early as October or into the following year depending on the school’s filing date.
** Remember that the AOTC can only be claimed for four tax years, so families should decide whether the fall of freshman year is better than spring of senior year for claiming. With the income limit of $160,000 (married filing joint) or $80,000 (single), some families might not be eligible every year.
Parents may find that different strategies are needed during different years. For example, a family with a student beginning college in fall of 2020 might reduce pre-tax retirement contributions this year (to increase taxes, which are deducted from income on the FAFSA and therefore reduce EFC) and then maximize contributions beginning in 2021 to reduce AGI for AOTC claiming purposes.
Families who are a few years out from college should calculate their EFC, but as college approaches and students start identifying schools they’re interested in, net price calculators become far more valuable. There can be vast differences between EFC and net price, and even significant school-to-school differences in net price due to different aid policies. Continue reading EFC vs Net Cost
Another school year is drawing to a close, meaning that free time and mental bandwidth are about to become available for many students. Here are some things high school students may want to spend some time on this summer: Continue reading What to do this Summer
Many schools’ FAFSA deadlines are rapidly approaching, or even past. Whether or not you think you’ll get need-based aid, you should be completing and submitting the FAFSA (and PROFILE, if applicable).
What happens if you miss your school’s deadline? Each school has its own policies so Continue reading Do the FAFSA. Really.
Outside scholarships are those that come from someone other than the federal government or your school. Examples include National Merit Scholarships, scholarships from your or your parents’ employers, or from other civic institutions. Although these scholarships can be very valuable, there is a big difference between them and institutional grants coming from your school: You have to report them on your FAFSA or Continue reading Outside Scholarships
The change in the FAFSA’s timing from winter to fall has some potentially unforeseen consequences. One is student summer jobs. Even at minimum wage, a student who worked full-time for the summer may have earned $3,000 or more. Students who saved their summer income with the intent to spend it over the course of the school year may Continue reading What to do with Summer Job Money?