What does Financial Aid Professional Judgment Mean in the Appeal Process?

Professional Judgment 


Inside the Financial Aid Office

PJ provides the Financial Aid Administrator (“FAA”) discretion on a case-by-case basis when there are unusual situations (“special circumstances”) to modify student data  that is used to calculate the Federal (FAFSA data) Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number.

The FAA is also permitted to change the Cost of Attendance. The FAA must adhere to certain published “legislative intent” guidelines in exercising PJ.

In addition, PJ extends to the following areas;

  • Resolve conflicting information,
  • Classify a student as a homeless youth,
  • Perform dependency overrides (Health Education Act Section 480(d)7),
  • Report cases of fraud.

Professional Judgment and the requirement for special circumstances form the basis of the financial aid appeal process.

Examples of financial aid appeal letters demonstrate different special circumstances that might be relevant to a successful appeal.

Where does the Financial Aid Administrator receive Authorization and Guidance to perform Professional Judgment?

Section 479A of Higher Education Act Amendments of 1992 provides the basis for PJ providing the FAA receives adequate documentation. In such situations, the FAA can make adjustments on a case-by-case basis in two specifric areas only as specifically defined by legislation;

  • the values of the data items required to calculate the expected student or parent contribution,
  • the cost of attendance.
These are the two basic questions to ask when  exploring how PJ works in practice.

When can the Financial Aid Administrator use Professional Judgment?

The statute generally states that nothing within it shall be construed as limiting the authority of aid administrators to make data adjustments for some situations.

The law provides some examples of special circumstances as guidance but does not limit the FAA to the situations referenced nor does it require the FAA to grant PJ for the circumstances referenced.

how to connect professional judgement to your appeal

19 Qualifying Categories, Click Above!

Why would the Financial Aid Administrator not perform Professional Judgment?

The FAA is not permitted to modify either the formula or the tables used in the EFC calculation. As referenced above, the FAA can only change the cost of attendance or the specific data elements used in the EFC calculation.

General student eligibility requirements do not fall within the realm of PJ. The FAA cannot circumvent the intent of the regulations. For example, the PJ cannot be used to change the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) selection criteria. It cannot add post enrollment activity expenses of the student to the Cost of Attendance.

graduation cap with gold tassle[Strategy Alert:] The indicated changes possible above reference the Federal Financial Aid FAFSA. Schools are more subjective without federal  regulation when disbursing institutional  monie.

How does an Adjustment to the EFC Number Impact the Financial Aid Award Package?

When PJ adjusts downward the data element/s then revises EFC number which must be applied consistently for all Federal Student Aid funds awarded to that student.

What Happens If My  School FAA Changes Data Elements and I Transfer?

Any PJ adjustment made by a school is specific to that school.

Why Would FFA not exercise Professional Judgment?

There are some specific situations where the regulations specifically indicate that PJ should be exercised. The litmus test pertains to PJ legislative intent. In such cases where decisions are made contrary to regulatory intent the judgments are deemed “unreasonable”.

Using PJ in the cases below would not be appropriate and considered unreasonable;

  • Tithing expenses, Vacation costs, high utility costs, high credit card payments – “living expenses”,
  • Awarding Stafford Loan to a student enrolled less than half-time,
  • Changing independent student to dependent student.

Generally if the expenses are controllable by family members when created then they are more likely to fall within the unreasonable category.

What are Examples Where FAA would use Professional Judgment?

It is important to remember although these events fall within the scope of PJ there is no guarantee that the individual FFA will exercise PJ.

Roth conversions increase adjusted gross income and taxes paid even though there is no cash received. The FAA can utilize PJ to reduce income and taxes paid to the amount that would have been reported if there was not Roth conversion.

Graduation Cap Black with Black Tassel[Strategy Alert:] It is important to note that as with specific special circumstances listed  in the law, the FAA is not required to make an adjustment in this or any other situation.

Illness  in the family can result in a modification of the Adjusted Gross Income EFC data element (what does your efc number mean?) to reflect lower earnings in the coming year. There also might be an adjustment to assets to indicate the family savings will be spent on medical expenses.

Here are a few others;

  • Recent unemployment of family member/s,
  • Medical, dental, or nursing care expenses not covered by health insurance,
  • Changes in the family’s income and/or assets,
  • Unusual one-time income event that inflates adjusted gross income
Graduation Cap Black with Black Tassel[Strategy Alert]: Organization of the letter with clearly marked exhibits to support your unusual situation is  paramount to a favorable decision].

Can I Appeal a Negative Decision to the Department of Education?

No, an aid administrator’s decisions regarding adjustment/s is final, there is no redress available.
This is why it is important to clearly state your case and it can help to hire someone who has the experience to craft your case with the necessary documentation.

Ordinarily you only get one chance! We can help.

The return on your investment (“our fee”) can be very large!

Jim can be contacted by phone 817-600-0576.
Email:  [email protected]