FAFSA and the Independent Student
By Mike Pugh
December 20, 2012
“I am a college sophomore and I pay for school myself. For the last two years, I have used my parents’ tax information on the FAFSA. Since I pay for school myself without any help from my parents, should I list only my own tax information to be eligible for more aid?”
This is a common question about the FAFSA: When and why must a student include parents’ financial information when applying for federal aid? The answer has to do with whether you qualify as an independent or a dependent student.
Dependent vs. Independent
In the federal government’s eyes, all students are considered primarily responsible for funding their higher education. But the government also recognizes that most parents contribute financially on some level. Parents provide assistance whether they’ve been saving for years to fund their child’s degree or simply provide housing while their children study.
Taking this into account, the federal government applies two different standards for students, one for dependent students and one for independent students. Dependent students are assumed to have parental support while independent students are not. The result: independent students might qualify for more aid.
Being considered an independent student is not merely a matter of being responsible for your own educational expenses. You must meet certain criteria to be declared an independent student for the purposes of the FAFSA:
- Be 24 years of age or older by December 31 of the award year;
- Be an orphan (both parents deceased), ward of the court, in foster care or was a ward of the court when 13 years or older;
- Be a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States or serving on active duty for other than training purposes;
- Be a graduate or professional student;
- Be a married individual;
- Have legal dependents other than a spouse;
- Be an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship;
- Be a homeless youth;
- Be a student for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances.
Changing Your Status
Dependent students may change their status, but it’s not easy. You start by filing a Dependency Review Form; request one from your school. You also must provide documentation explaining your situation. Your case is then reviewed by a committee or financial aid office at your college.
Keep in mind that most students will not qualify for a change in status. Circumstances tend to be extreme (such as abandonment or physical abuse) to warrant the change. Simply residing in your own apartment or house is not adequate justification.
If you think you have unusual circumstances that would qualify you as an independent, speak with a financial aid administrator at your school.
Tips for Filing as an Independent Student
If you do qualify as an independent student, follow these tips:
- Don’t forget to complete the section that asks you for the number of people in your household. Be sure to include yourself.
- Filing as an independent student doesn’t always mean that you can leave the parent section of the FAFSA blank. “Check first with the school before submitting your FAFSA. Some may want parental information on the FAFSA and/or on other forms, such as the CSS PROFILE form or the school’s own aid application,” Kalman A. Chany, Founder and President of Campus Consultants Inc. says. For example, graduate health profession students may be required to provide parental data even if they are independent.
- When filing as an independent, your school may ask you to submit proof before allowing any federal student aid. Have your documentation ready to avoid delays.
If you think you may qualify, discuss your status with your financial aid officer and file early to maximize your chances of getting financial aid.