Fired man putting his stuff in a box.The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the application you complete for grants, work-study, and student loan consideration. For current high school seniors and college students, the 2021-2022 FAFSA asks for 2019 Federal income tax information, as well as other items found on this FAFSA Checklist.

However, there are instances where the current financial situation at home has changed and no longer matches the financial information on the FAFSA. That is what financial aid professionals refer to as special circumstances. Given that the COVID19 pandemic has affected many families financially, this is an especially relevant topic.

What are special circumstances?

Special circumstances, as it relates to financial aid, are the factors that are not reflected on the FAFSA but still impact your family’s ability to pay for college. For the sake of this blog, we’ll focus on factors that affect the money situation at home. Examples may include loss of job and unexpected medical expenses not covered by insurance.

Whenever there are special circumstances, the financial aid office will request documentation from you so they can evaluate the situation. If warranted, they have the power to alter your financial aid award package to something that better reflects your current situation. This is known as Professional Judgment.

What is the first step in this process?

Number one step: file your FAFSA! When you complete your FAFSA, the information is sent to the college(s) you’ve listed on your FAFSA. This allows the financial aid office to look at the data and generate a financial aid award offer (which also includes scholarships you’ve received). Even if you know that the income tax information on the FAFSA no longer reflects your current situation, you still need to complete your FAFSA. Once the financial aid office has the information, you can then begin to discuss the special circumstances with them.

How do I start the conversation with the college?

Usually, this begins with the student, and not the parent. Due to privacy laws, financial aid offices may not be able to discuss any details about the financial aid process with the parent(s), unless the student gives the financial aid office permission. Once communication is established, the financial aid office will let you know what information they will accept to evaluate your special circumstances.

Mary Sommers, Financial Aid Director at University of Nebraska-Kearney (UNK), offered some valuable tips for starting the conversation: “A good place to start is to review the college’s website to see if there are any specific instructions published there. Additionally, call to set up a virtual or in-person appointment – or send an email with an initial explanation.”

What kind of documentation is needed?

This largely depends on what factors have led to your special circumstance. Again, Mary Sommers from UNK was helpful in providing clarity: “In most cases the financial aid officer is going to want to have an explanation of the circumstance and then the documentation to back that up.

The student and family should gather letters or emails from employers, pay stubs, proof of bills paid (that are significant, such as medical bills), explanation of benefits from insurance companies. Often the tax return for the relevant year is a key document as well… the full income tax return with all schedules should be available. The best place to start is always with an initial conversation with financial aid professionals so you don’t spin your wheels getting documentation together that isn’t necessary.”

Final thoughts or advice?

This process can feel intimidating at times. However, use your resources and be sure to communicate with your college financial aid office. As Mary Sommers adds, “Financial Aid professionals have been helping families in tough situations for years and years. They are committed professionals who will protect your privacy and really want to help in whatever way they can.  They can best do that when you ask for help and are honest about your situation and needs.”