The FAFSA (Free Application For Student Aid) does not provide families with the opportunity to explain special circumstances affecting their family.
To remedy this, Congress has delegated to the school’s financial aid administrators the authority to compensate for special circumstances on a case-by-case basis with adequate documentation.
If you have a family member with special needs, you may qualify to appeal your financial aid by requesting a special circumstances review. Special circumstances include anything that has changed from one year to the next and anything that distinguishes the family from the typical family.
How does a Special Circumstances Review work? The special circumstance review is based on strict guidelines and percentages that must be verified before figures can be manipulated. The Federal need analysis methodology assesses a portion of the family's discretionary income (money that is not required for basic living expenses). Expenses and income reductions that are caused by circumstances beyond the family's control do not represent discretionary spending and so can be used to justify professional judgment. The changes in the data elements on the FAFSA will then result in a new expected family contribution (EFC). This, in turn, may result in a new financial aid package.
How to request a Special Circumstances Review:
Research/ask your college’s financial aid office about their process for a special circumstances review.
In general, you will have to provide a letter (or fill out a form) explaining your appeal and provide documentation. The documentation should ideally include information about the financial impact of the special circumstances in addition to discussing the nature of the special circumstances.
Each college’s financial aid office will make its own decision about the request for an adjustment. Some colleges may make an adjustment while others may not. Decisions made by a financial aid administrator at one college are not binding on financial aid administrators at other colleges. Even if the college allows an adjustment, the college may not be able to provide additional financial aid funds, but the financial aid administrator may be able to suggest other options.
Adjustments apply only to a single award year. Financial aid administrators must review the special circumstances once a year to ensure that they still apply before making an adjustment.
Good to Know: Financial aid administrators can also adjust the cost of attendance figures, not just the data elements on the FAFSA. For example, the financial aid administrator might increase the cost of attendance to include the cost of a computer, dependent care costs for a special-needs child or disability-related expenses. Financial aid administrators are more likely to adjust the cost of attendance when the student’s EFC is zero, since current financial aid formulas do not allow the EFC to go below zero. When a student’s EFC is already zero, increasing the cost of attendance is the only way to increase the student’s demonstrated financial need (and thus, the amount of financial aid).