Professional Judgement Policy

Professional Judgement Policy
Body

Professional Judgment refers to the authority of a college’s financial aid office to make adjustments to the data elements on the FAFSA (special circumstances) and/or to adjust a student's dependency status (unusual circumstances) on a case by case basis. The college does not have the authority to change the need analysis formula itself or to make direct adjustments to the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Instead, the school may make adjustments to the inputs to the formula. The changes to the inputs are dictated by the impact of the special circumstances on the family's income and assets. The standard formula is then applied to the new data elements, yielding a new EFC figure.

Examples

  • Reduction in household income due to layoff, furlough, job displacement
  • K-12 private school tuition payments
  • Deduction of one time payments such as a 401k draw
  • Dependency adjustment due to parental abandonment, human trafficking, abusive household

SMC Financial Aid Office recommends any student submitting an appeal review all information outlined below re: ‘professional judgement’ so aware of rights and responsibilities.

This information, posted on SMC website serves as ‘public notification of professional judgement’.

 

PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENT - APPEAL PROCESS

  • Go to SMC Financial Aid Policies, Procedures, Forms page.
  • For ‘changes to income’, ‘deductions of one time payments’, ‘medical/dental expenses’, ‘private school tuition expense’(K-12), ‘divorce/separation after completion of FAFSA’, ‘disaster, emergency, or economic downturn’ complete/collect following documents and submit to finaid@stmarys-ca.edu
    • Financial Aid Appeal Form 23-24
    • Projected Income 23-24
    • General statement of situation, signed/printed
    • Any supporting documentation: layoff notice, tax forms, private school payments, etc.
    • Other examples see below FAFSA Simplification Act > acceptable documentation > special circumstances
  • For adjustments to dependency status due to parental abandonment, human trafficking, at-risk homeless youth, foster care, or any other extenuating circumstances complete/collect following documents and submit to finaid@stmarys-ca.edu
    • General statement of situation, signed/printed
    • Any supporting documentation: court documents, statement from government agency or caseworker or homeless shelter director, etc.
    • Other examples see below FAFSA Simplification Act > acceptable documentation > unusual circumstances
  • Appeals will be reviewed as quickly as practical, note: typical review time from Jan-Apr is 2-4 weeks, May-Aug is 4-6 weeks
  • Appeals specific to determination of independence will be reviewed as quickly as practicable, but no later than 60 days after the student enrolls

 

PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENT – POLICIES

SMC Financial Aid Office will:

  • Have this information posted on SMC website serve as public notification of professional judgement policies, procedures, information
  • Consider all professional judgement requests
  • Retain all documentation, including documented interviews, related to the adjustment for at least 3 years after the student’s last term of enrollment; and
  • Presume that any student who has obtained an adjustment for unusual circumstances and a final determination of independence to be independent for each subsequent award year at the same institution unless the student informs the institution that their circumstances have changed or the institution has conflicting information about the student’s independence
  • Make and document professional judgment determinations on a case-by-case basis without regard to how broadly an event may affect its student population in making case-by-case determinations, must substantiate the student’s circumstance with supporting documentation

SMC Financial Aid Office may:

  • Consider documented interviews for the professional judgement process
  • Use a dependency override determination made by a financial aid administrator at another institution in the same or a prior award year

SMC Financial Aid Office recognizes:

  • Previous reasons for exercising professional judgment (e.g., unemployment, dislocated worker, school tuition expenses) are still allowable
  • A dependency override for unusual circumstances is considered unique from a determination of independence for homeless youth or at-risk homeless youth
  • Appeals specific to determination of independence will be reviewed as quickly as practicable, but no later than 60 days after the student enrolls

 

PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENT - FAFSA SIMPLIFICATION ACT PER U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

Professional Judgment

The FAFSA Simplification 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 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.

What has changed?

  • Institutions may not maintain a policy of denying all professional judgment requests but must consider all such requests. Therefore, institutions must develop policies and processes for reviewing those requests.
  • Institutions must disclose publicly that students may pursue an adjustment based on special or unusual circumstances.
  • Institutions may use a dependency override determination made by a financial aid administrator at another institution in the same or a prior award year.

What remains the same?

  • Institutions must make and document professional judgment determinations on a case-by-case basis without regard to how broadly an event may affect its student population.
  • In making case-by-case determinations, the FAA must substantiate the student’s circumstance with supporting documentation.
  • Previous reasons for exercising professional judgment (e.g., unemployment, dislocated worker, school tuition expenses) are still allowable.
  • A dependency override for unusual circumstances is considered unique from a determination of independence for homeless youth or at-risk homeless youth.

 

Additional Flexibility for Assisting Students with Unusual Circumstances

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. For the 2023-24 Award Year, applicants must still indicate an unusual circumstance and request a determination of independence with their school to allow us to process 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 such 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.

Additionally, the Act introduces new requirements for processing and communicating with students who request an adjustment for unusual circumstances. For aid applications for the 2023-24 Award Year and thereafter, schools and financial aid administrators must:

  • Notify students of the school’s process, requirements, and reasonable timeline to review adjustment requests after their FAFSA form is submitted;
  • Provide students with a final determination of their dependency status and financial aid offer as soon as practicable after reviewing all requested documentation;
  • Retain all documentation, including documented interviews, related to the adjustment for at least 3 years after the student’s last term of enrollment; and
  • Presume that any student who has obtained an adjustment for unusual circumstances and a final determination of independence to be independent for each subsequent award year at the same institution unless the student informs the institution that their circumstances have changed or the institution has conflicting information about the student’s independence.

As previously provided by law, if a student pursues an adjustment for unusual circumstances and the financial aid administrator does not determine that the student should be considered independent, the student will only be eligible for dependent-level Direct Unsubsidized Loans unless they subsequently complete the FAFSA form as a dependent student by providing parental information.

 

Timing of Determinations of Independence

Institutions now have additional guidance on the timing of determinations of independence for certain student populations. These include unaccompanied homeless youth or at-risk homeless youth, foster care youth, orphans, wards of the court, and students with unusual circumstances.

  • 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 (e.g., 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.

 

Acceptable Documentation

In general, when determining a student’s special or unusual circumstances, or in verifying homeless or foster youth statuses, 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.

Special Circumstances

Acceptable documentation may include:

  • 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.

Unusual Circumstances

Acceptable documentation may include:

  • 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.

 

Unaccompanied Homeless Youth

In determining independence due to homelessness, 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

If an institution requires that a student provide documentation that they were in foster care at age 13 or older, 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.

 

Professional Judgement During a Disaster, Emergency, or Economic Downturn 

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. 

 

Complete GEN-22-15 Department of Education (DOE) Publication Directive can be reviewed here: https://fsapartners.ed.gov/knowledge-center/library/dear-colleague-letters/2022-11-04/fafsar-simplification-act-changes-implementation-2023-24