When a college’s award letter does not meet the student’s financial needs (either in the total amount of aid or in the type of aid), the student can appeal the award to the college. Most colleges have an appeal process that allows students to request a review of their financial aid eligibility and corresponding financial aid award offer. Each college determines its own regulations for this process, and students should be aware of a particular college’s procedures.

If the student appeals an award letter, the student should be specific in requesting additional funds. The student should clearly state the reasons for the appeal, and request a specific amount of money. The student should write the request and submit any required documents with the letter of appeal. Then the student should contact the financial aid officer (FAO). It is preferable that the contact be made in person; if this is not possible, the contact should be made by a telephone call. The “personal touch” is important to a successful appeal.

Professional Judgment

In the appeal letter, the student should ask the FAO to exercise “Professional Judgment.” If the student is to successfully appeal an award letter; the student must fully understand the concept and definition of Professional Judgment. Professional Judgment is the authority given to the college FAO to change the family’s financial data in any way that would more accurately measure the family’s ability to pay for educational costs. Professional Judgment may only be made in special circumstances, and only when the family provides adequate documentation of these special circumstances. To understand the concept of Professional Judgment, various Sections of the Higher Education Act (the Congressional act which contains the federal financial aid rules and regulations pertaining to Professional Judgment) are listed as follows:

HEA Section 479A states: “Nothing in this part shall be interpreted as limiting the authority of the financial aid administrator, on the basis of adequate documentation, to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis to the cost of attendance or the values of the data items required to calculate the expected student or parent contribution (or both) to allow for treatment of an individual eligible applicant with special circumstances.”

Section 479A continues, “However, this authority shall not be construed to permit aid administrators to deviate from the contributions expected in the absence of special circumstances. Special circumstances shall be conditions that differentiate an individual student from a class of students. Adequate documentation for such adjustments shall substantiate such special circumstances of individual students. In addition, nothing in this title shall be interpreted as limiting the authority of the student financial aid administrator in such cases to request and use supplementary information about the financial status or personal circumstances of eligible applicants in selecting recipients and determining the amount of awards under this title.”

A financial aid administrator shall be considered to be making a necessary adjustment to the expected family contribution if:

  • The administrator makes adjustments excluding from family income any proceeds from a sale of a farm or business assets of a family if such sale results from a voluntary or involuntary foreclosure, forfeiture, or bankruptcy or an involuntary liquidation; or  
  • The administrator makes adjustments in the award level of a student with a disability so as to take into consideration the additional costs such a student incurs as a result of the disability.

HEA Section 472 states: “For a student with one or more dependents, an allowance based on the estimated actual expenses incurred for such dependent care, based on the number and age of such dependents, except that: A) such allowance shall not exceed the reasonable cost in the community in which the student resides for the kind of care provided; and, B) the period for which dependent care is required includes, but is not limited to, class-time, study-time, field work, internships, and commuting time.”

HEA Section 484 states: “In order to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance, a student must be maintaining satisfactory progress in the course of study the student is pursuing in accordance with the provisions of this Section. For the purpose of this Section, a student is maintaining satisfactory progress if: A) the institution at which the student is in attendance, reviews the progress at the end of each academic year, or its equivalent, as determined by the institution, and B) the student has a cumulative “C” average, or its equivalent or academic standing consistent with the requirements for graduation, as determined by the institution, at the end of the second such academic year.”

Any institute of higher education at which the student is in attendance may waive these provisions for undue hardship based on:

  • the death of a relative of the student;  
  • the personal injury or illness of the student; or,  
  • special circumstances as determined by the institution.

Following are some areas where professional judgment does NOT apply:

  • An administrator may not use professional judgment to make an otherwise ineligible student eligible. For example, an administrator may not use professional judgment to waive general student eligibility criteria.
  • An administrator may not use professional judgment to circumvent the law or regulations.    
  • The Department of Education has stated that professional judgment may not be used to include expenses related to post-enrollment activities to the student’s cost of attendance. For example, professional licensing examination fees (such as bar examinations or medical licensing examinations) are not allowable costs, as they are considered related to post-enrollment activities.    
  • The Department of Education has stated that professional judgment may not be used to circumvent the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) selection criteria.  
  • Professional judgment cannot be used to make an independent student a dependent student.

Professional Judgment can be utilized to either increase or decrease one or more of the family’s financial data elements (income and assets) used in calculating the EFC.

Professional Judgment can only be used if the Student Aid Report has been filed and the EFC calculated.

Special Circumstances

Professional Judgment is not limited to the situations mentioned on the financial aid application form (elementary and high school tuition, unusual medical or dental expenses, dislocated worker, unemployed worker, unusually high child care expenses, or other unusual circumstances). It could include circumstances that were considered to be “special conditions” in previous school years, such as divorce, separation, or the death of a parent or spouse after the application was filed. If these situations occur, the college’s FAO must be contacted to see if the aid award can be increased.

Professional Judgment can also be used by the FAO in other situations as follows:

  • Adjust the COA to take into account special circumstances such as medical needs or excessive travel costs.
  • Override the student’s dependency status to make a dependent student considered independent. However, if a FAO’s information indicates that an independent student is receiving substantial support from parents, the FAO may adjust one or more of the data elements in the EFC calculation, such as nontaxable income.
  • Adjust the income and assets of a family located in a Federally declared natural disaster area. If there is a substantial loss of income in the current year, as a direct result of a natural disaster, the FAO should be contacted. If there is a loss, or damage, to assets as a result of the natural disaster, the FAO should be contacted. In both cases, adequate documentation of the loss should be provided to the FAO. If this is correctly done by the family, the FAO could use Professional Judgment and adjust the income and assets which were originally reported on the student’s financial aid application.
  • Any other “special circumstance” that the family and/or its financial advisor can negotiate with the FAO to adjust the EFC data elements.