Can We Use Professional Judgment To Adjust For Number In College Starting With 2024-25?

Award Year: 2024-25 KA-36559 Helpfulness Rating 2,718 page views

This guidance is specific to the 2024-25 award year and later.

Yes, but only if additional family members in college creates a financial hardship that can be documented. Adjustments to financial data elements or cost of attendance (COA) will determine the impact of the professional judgment (PJ). Simply making an adjustment to the number in college field has no impact on the student aid index (SAI) and does not meet the standards for PJ in this situation.

The FAFSA Simplification Act contained intentional and significant changes to the Federal Methodology (FM) formula for determining Title IV federal student aid eligibility through the FAFSA. One of the changes is the removal of taking into account the number of the applicant’s family members who are enrolled in college.

Under Section 479A of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), as amended, [20 USC 1087TT], a financial aid administrator (FAA) may exercise their PJ authority to make adjustments to the data elements on the FAFSA used to calculate the SAI or by adjusting a student’s COA. As with other PJ decisions, the FAA must make the decision on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the student's/parent's special circumstances and using adequate documentation.

While the number in college question is still on the FAFSA it will not impact the FM formula, and adjusting that number on the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) will not result in a change. If warranted, the PJ adjustment could include, but is not limited to, the following:

For example, the school could calculate the other family member's COA minus any grants or scholarships and then subtract that amount from the student's AGI. As another example, SAI-Q3/A3 in the U.S. Department of Education's (ED's) FAFSA Simplification Questions and Answers gives this: "John and his sister Jane are both enrolled in postsecondary education but at different schools. John lives at home and attends a nearby community college, while Jane lives on campus at an out-of-state university, which required that their parents take out a substantial parent PLUS loan to cover her costs. Because of this and other documented financial changes, the FAA at John’s school decides to use PJ to reduce the parents’ income to the extent that John’s costs will be entirely covered by need-based aid, including a subsidized Direct Loan."

Of course, these are just examples; the FAA can make any other adjustment to the above-listed items as long as they deem it appropriate using PJ. The FAA must use their own discretion to make PJ adjustments; NASFAA cannot make these decisions on behalf of the FAA.

Remember to set the FAA Adjustment Flag in the FAFSA Partner Portal (formerly FAA Access) or the Electronic Data Exchange (EDE).

Important Note: The law does not permit a modification to either the formula or the tables used in the calculation. In addition, an FAA cannot adjust data elements or the COA solely because they or the family might not believe the tables or formula are adequate or appropriate, or because they disagree with the statutory changes made by the FAFSA Simplification Act, which did not grandfather need analysis changes for continuing students.

The data elements that are adjusted must relate to the student’s special circumstances beyond just having another family member in college. While the statute does list number in college as an example of a special circumstance, the statute also says those special circumstances "shall be conditions that differentiate an individual student from a group of students rather than conditions that exist across a group of students..." This means, the FAA cannot adjust for the number in college across-the-board for all students who report other family members in college on the FAFSA. So, how does the FAA make adjustments to differentiate one student from the group of thousands of other students who have family members in college? The FAA takes a holistic approach by evaluating the totality of the family's circumstances (beyond just having another family in college) to determine and document the financial hardship presented by having other family members in college. What is it about this family's individual circumstances that makes them different from all the others that have multiple family members in college?

Another consideration and example is the amount of aid the student's sibling might be receiving from the other institution. A sibling who has received a full-ride scholarship (athletic or otherwise), or one who has their financial need already met with student aid might not warrant additional consideration. Likewise, a sibling in community college will not have the additional expenses that one enrolled in a four-year private university might have. These examples illustrate why an across-the-board application of PJ would not be appropriate.

When setting its PJ policies, the institution has to make its own risk assessment given the potential liabilities that could come from an audit, program review, or Office of Inspector General review accusing the institution of using PJ to intentionally circumvent the law. The institution should also remember that, under 34 CFR 668.25(c)(3), the school is responsible and financially liable for the actions taken by any of its third-party servicers, including those that process aid applications, PJ adjustments, verifications, etc.

AskRegs Q&As represent NASFAA's understanding of regulatory and compliance issues. They are FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY. While NASFAA believes AskRegs Q&As are accurate and factual, they have not been reviewed or approved by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If you should need written confirmation of AskRegs information for audit or program review purposes, please contact your ED School Participation Division. NASFAA shall not be liable for technical or editorial errors or omissions contained herein; nor for incidental or consequential damages resulting from the furnishing, performance, or use of this material.