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Why is Parental Information Required on the FAFSA for a Self-Sufficient Student?

Mark Kantrowitz

December 24, 2012

Why do we have to file the FAFSA when my daughter supports herself? My daughter has not lived with me or my husband for a year and a half while she’s been attending college. We do not support her financially, we do not pay for her education nor do we even send her money. She is completely self-sufficient, a fact of which we are very proud to claim! We will not be claiming her as a dependent on our taxes this year because that is a true reflection of what occurred. Would we still need to file the FAFSA for her and if so, why? — Jennifer M.

Who has a greater responsibility for helping a student pay for college: the student’s parents or the federal government?

Federal law assumes that the parents have the primary responsibility for paying for their children’s college education. The federal government provides grants and other forms of college support only when the parents are incapable of paying for college, not when the parents are unwilling to pay for college.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) distinguishes between students who are dependent and students who are independent. Parents of a dependent student are required to submit their financial and demographic information on the FAFSA. Parents of an independent student are not required to complete the FAFSA.

The definition of a dependent student for federal student aid purposes is different than the definition used on federal income tax returns. The definition of a dependent on the federal income tax return is defined by the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, while the definition for federal student aid purposes is defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965. Whether the parents claim the student as a dependent on their income tax returns is irrelevant to the student’s status as a dependent for federal student aid purposes.

Before 1992, a student who was self-sufficient for two years was considered an independent student for federal student aid purposes. But this definition was prone to abuse and manipulation, so Congress changed the definition starting with the 1992-93 academic year. The new definition established a specific set of criteria for a student to be considered independent.

The current criteria for independent student status include whether the student is age 24 or older as of December 31 of the academic year. A student can also be independent by being married, having a dependent other than a spouse, being a veteran of the US Armed Forces, serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes, having been an orphan or in foster care or a ward of the court at any time after reaching age 13 or older, being an emancipated minor or in a court-ordered legal guardianship prior to reaching the age of majority, or being a homeless unaccompanied youth. Graduate and professional students are also considered independent. All other students are considered to be dependent.

Most unmarried freshmen who are under age 24 and who are not veterans are dependent under this definition.

College financial aid administrators may perform a dependency override to grant independent student status to an otherwise dependent student, but only in unusual circumstances. Unusual circumstances can include an abusive family environment (e.g., as evidenced by court protection from abuse orders against both parents) or when both parents are incarcerated, institutionalized or otherwise incapacitated. A student supporting herself is not considered an unusual circumstance.

The US Department of Education has published guidance in the Application and Verification Guide that indicates that college financial aid administrators may not grant a dependency override just because the student is self-sufficient, just because the parents do not claim the student as a dependent on their income tax returns, just because the parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education or just because the parents refuse to complete the FAFSA or verification. None of these scenarios, alone or in combination, is sufficient justification for a dependency override.

If parents of a dependent student refuse to complete the FAFSA, the student will not qualify for federal student aid. (A dependent student whose parents have cut off all support may qualify for unsubsidized Stafford loans, but only at the dependent student limits. The student will not qualify for other federal education loans, federal grants or federal work-study.) The student may also be ineligible for grants from other sources, as most colleges follow the federal requirements.


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