When undergraduate students apply for federal financial aid, the government makes default assumptions about their financial status. An undergraduate student under 24 years old is automatically classified as a dependent student, or a student who can provide the financial information of parents or guardians.
What if that’s not the case for you?
You can still pay for undergraduate education. You’ll have to do a little more work to secure financial aid, but it’s doable. Many independent undergraduate students make it: a 2014 survey by the American Association of Community Colleges found that 35.6 percent of undergraduates at public four-year schools considered themselves financially independent.
Here’s what you need to know to file a FAFSA as an independent student.
What’s a dependent student?
To apply for any kind of federal assistance, both grants and loans, you start by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA requires you to file as either
- A dependent student who will report your parents’ financial info as well as your own
- An independent student who will report only your financial info (and your spouse’s, if you are married).
The amount you report affects the need-based aid you receive. This means if you report your parents’ income as a dependent, the school may expect a larger financial contribution from you, whether or not your parents help you pay.
Student Aid has a guide to who qualifies as a parent for FAFSA purposes, particularly in cases where parents are divorced. Legal guardians only count if they’ve legally adopted you.
One important guideline: you can still be a dependent student even if your parents have no plans to contribute financially to your education, room, or board. If you’re under 24 and completely self-sufficient, you’re still considered a dependent unless you can prove otherwise.
Why is it so tough to be declared an independent undergraduate student?
For one, independent students will generally report a lower income than they would if they included parental info. This makes them eligible for a lot more aid—good for the student, but not as good for the federal grant and loan servicers. Schools are limited in the amount of aid they can give, and these guidelines help them distribute more aid to more students while keeping costs down.
So what does it take to be declared independent? Any one of the situations below should apply to you. These criteria are taken from the 2017-2018 FAFSA, but they may change slightly every year.
- You’re at least 24 on or before December 31 of the year you’ll be awarded aid.
- You’re married (or separated but not divorced).
- You’re applying to graduate or professional school, regardless of your age.
- You’re on active duty in the US Armed Forces or National Guard for purposes other than training.
- You’re a veteran of the US Armed Forces.
- You have dependents yourself—children, usually, but anyone who can legally be declared your dependent for tax purposes and receives more than half their support from you.
- Both your parents are deceased.
- You’re in foster care, or were in foster care anytime after you turned 13.
- You’re a ward of the court, or were a ward of the court anytime after you turned 13.
- You are, or were before you turned 18, legally declared an emancipated minor.
- You’ve been homeless, or self-supporting and at the risk of being homeless, within the past year. (Student Aid defines “homeless” as lacking fixed or regular housing.)
What if you don’t meet any of these criteria, but still can’t provide your parents’ information on the FAFSA?
The red tape is frustrating, but we don’t recommend a quick wedding or adoption of a dependent child to get independent status. You have a few options.
Submit the FAFSA without parent information
One scenario, common enough for Federal Student Aid to give it special attention, is parents who are unsupportive and refuse to provide their information for the FAFSA.
If your parents can’t or won’t pay any of your expenses, they may still be considered supportive. Unsupportive parents are defined as those who won’t give their information—who want nothing to do with the process at all.
You should still submit the FAFSA, but be honest. Explain you don’t have a special circumstance but you can’t provide parent information.
If you do submit the form without parent information, you won’t receive an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC determines eligibility for aid. Not having one may eliminate you from consideration for certain state—and school—based aid programs.
The only federal aid you’re able to get in this case is an unsubsidized loan, and even that’s not guaranteed. But no matter what, you should fill out the FAFSA—an unsubsidized loan is better than no aid at all. Contact the financial aid office at the school you want to attend to see if you can get an unsubsidized loan. They may need, if you can provide it, a written statement from your parents explaining their lack of support.
Two things to note:
This is worth repeating: Supportive (according to Student Aid) doesn’t necessarily mean able or willing to pay for school. It doesn’t even mean your parents are supporting you financially in other ways.
If your parents are on board with your desire to attend school, and can provide their information, this info won’t obligate them to contribute any money. What it will do is increase the possibility of aid for you.
If you or your parents are concerned about entering their information because of their citizenship or immigration status, there’s good news. The FAFSA won’t ask for your parents’ citizenship status and you don’t need to provide it. In this case, you have the option of leaving out your parents’ Social Security Numbers, Tax Identification Numbers, and tax filing information on the FAFSA.
Work your way through school
Ask the financial aid office about job options on and off campus. You may not qualify for work-study, but you may still be able to work part-time around your courses.
You may need to plan more time to complete your undergraduate degree. Since you reapply for financial aid using the FAFSA every year, you may qualify as an independent in a subsequent year (e.g. if you reach the age requirement) and get more aid.
Apply for a dependency override
If your parents are completely out of the picture, this is an option to consider.
Dependency overrides—decisions to grant dependency status to students who otherwise wouldn’t qualify—are tough to get. They’re only granted in unusual circumstances.
A few situations which may merit a dependency override:
- You were in an abusive (physically or emotionally) home environment and left home.
- Both parents are incarcerated or institutionalized.
- Both parents are hospitalized for an extended period.
- You’re married, but your spouse is deceased.
- Your parents have abandoned you and you’ve had no contact with them for at least a year. FinAid gives more information about what constitutes abandonment.
You should still submit the FAFSA if you’re in one of the situations above. Indicate on the form that you have special circumstances. You won’t receive an EFC. The next step is to consult your school’s financial aid office.
If your circumstances are less clear—you’re still in the process of declaring yourself an emancipated minor, for instance, or your housing situation is less than stable but you’re not homeless—it’s still worth inquiring about a dependency override. They’re granted on a case-by-case basis. The worst you can hear is no.
Be prepared with any documentation you may need to prove your situation. See if you can access relevant court and law enforcement documents, for instance. You’ll also want to bring in a neutral third party, like a social worker, counselor, or teacher, to advocate for you.
One college requires a letter from the student explaining their circumstances, letters from three professionals verifying the family situation, and the students’ tax returns to consider a dependency override. It’s a lot of work, but it may be worth it.
Speak directly to the colleges you’re considering.
You should do this no matter what. Talk to the financial aid office before you fill out your FAFSA. Some schools may be more willing to point you to outside and school-specific sources of aid.
It’s likely that if the school has already accepted you as a student, they’ll do whatever they can to help you attend. They want you there!
Apply for private grants, loans, and scholarships.
Private sources of aid—not affiliated with the federal government—give out assistance at the discretion of the lender. Their guidelines may differ from the government’s guidelines. See what’s out there. Look for scholarships designed for your field of study. Your school financial aid office may have some recommendations.
See if you can get an unsubsidized federal loan before taking out private loans, however. If you do choose private loans, take a careful look at their terms of repayment and interest rates. Most often, private loans have less flexible payback terms than federal loans.
And start searching early, even before you fill out the FAFSA. Deadlines sneak up on you!
Bottom line: if you want to take courses or pursue an undergraduate degree as an independent student, you can do it. Keep your options open—community college, online courses, or part-time enrollment, for example—and plan ahead.