How to Report a Change in Income

by Julie Gross

This year, 2020, has undoubtedly been an extremely difficult year for many. For those families with children in college, a loss of income due to COVID-19 will impact their ability to pay for education expenses. It is important to understand how to communicate this change in circumstances to the colleges.  It all starts with submitting a FAFSA.

You have experienced a change in income and your student is already attending college:

You should have submitted the 2020-21 FAFSA for this current academic year. If you have not done so, you should do this immediately. This financial aid application requires financial information from your 2018 tax return which may not be indicative of your current financial picture.  You cannot change the FAFSA to reflect your current income.  You will need to contact the financial aid office at your child’s school directly to let them know you have experienced a change in circumstances.  They should institute a process called Professional Judgement where they can disregard your 2018 income from the FAFSA and instead, consider your current income. You should be prepared to provide any documentation necessary to substantiate your change in circumstances.  This may be a separation letter from your previous employer or proof of unemployment benefits if you were let go. Your last paystub may suffice if you have experienced a decrease in income. A change in circumstances can also include excessive out-of-pocket medical costs, death or serious illness of a parent.

You have experienced a change in income from 2019 and your child is a high school senior applying to college this fall:

You will need to submit the 2021-22 FAFSA which will be available as of October 1. This application will require financial information from your 2019 tax return.  Again, this income information may not reflect your current financial situation.  You should contact the college’s financial aid office directly and let them know that you have experienced a change in circumstances.  The college may then institute Professional Judgement which would allow them to consider your current income instead of your 2019 income. Documentation of your change in circumstances is very helpful and most likely required in order for the college to perform Professional Judgement, as stated above.  You should make every effort to file your 2020 taxes as early as possible in order to provide your 2020 tax return to the colleges to substantiate your reduction in income. 

If you are going to appeal a financial aid award or request Professional Judgement, your family should have experienced at least a 20% reduction in income, high out-of-pocket medical costs or other costs related to COVID-19 such as elder care expenses, home office expenses, etc. Understand that every college will have their own unique protocol to consider appeals.  Contact the financial aid office directly and follow their instructions. Be understanding as everyone, including financial aid officers, has been impacted by COVID-19 and this remains a difficult time for many. The schools are all trying to figure this out as we go and may not have all of the answers right now. Also, know that asking a college for financial aid will not make a school rescind an acceptance or have a negative impact on your child. The worst that can happen is they can reject your appeal.