Is There a Difference Between a Special Circumstance and an Unusual Circumstance?

Award Year: 2023-24 KA-36445 Helpfulness Rating 2,154 page views

This guidance is specific to the 2023-24 award year and later.

Yes. Terminology now matters, so be careful to reference the correct term for Title IV purposes. Effective with the 2023-24 award year, changes to Section 479A of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), as amended, [20 USC 1087TT], make a distinction between special circumstances and unusual circumstances. 

In Dear Colleague Letter GEN-22-15, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) clarifies the distinction between the two categories as follows:

"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."

ED goes on to state that a student could have circumstances that are both special and unusual. Financial aid administrators still have the authority to make those determinations by exercising professional judgment (PJ) based on the student's documented circumstance.

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