How to Apply for Financial Aid as an Independent

Find out whether you’re considered an independent student and how it will affect your financial aid.

By Ashley Henshaw | February 17, 2017

The federal government has set up very strict criteria under which a college student can be considered independent.
Photo: Thinkstock

Your dependency status makes a significant impact on how much financial aid you’ll receive. While the majority of students are considered dependents, there’s a chance you could be considered independent – if you meet certain criteria. Find out more about how your dependency status affects your college finances and how to apply for financial aid as an independent student.

Qualifying as an independent student can help you receive more financial aid.

Independent vs. Dependent Status

Your status determines whose information is included on your FAFSA:

  • Dependent: Your and your parents’ information will be included.
  • Independent: Your information will be included along with that of your spouse (if you’re married).

The federal government has set up very strict criteria under which a college student can be considered independent. You must answer “yes” to one of the following questions in order to file for federal aid as an independent student:

  • Will you be 24 or older by December 31 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?
  • Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, etc.)?
  • Are you married or separated but not divorced?
  • Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
  • Do you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
  • Are you an emancipated minor or are you in a legal guardianship as determined by a court?
  • Are you an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
  • Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?

You may be required to provide documentation to support an answer of “yes” to any of these questions.

Independent Status Myths

Many students believe they are considered independent for reasons not included in the list of questions above. The following are a few common misunderstandings about dependency status among students and parents:

  • Even if your parents don’t claim you as a dependent on tax forms, you can still be considered dependent.
  • Even if you are financially self-sufficient and live on your own, you can still be considered dependent.
  • Even if your parents refuse to help pay for your education in the hopes that you’ll be declared independent and receive more financial aid, you can still be considered dependent.

How to Change Your Status

If you were given a dependent status but believe you qualify as an independent student, you may be able to change your status. Start by requesting a Dependency Review Form from your school’s financial aid office. You’ll need to provide documentation that backs up your argument. Your case will be reviewed by a committee or financial aid administrator at your college before you receive an answer.

Many students believe they are considered independent for reasons not included in the list of questions above.
Photo: Thinkstock

Tips for Filing as an Independent Student

There are several things to keep in mind when filing for financial aid as an independent student, including:

  • Remember that you need to include your spouse’s information if you’re married.
  • Be prepared with documentation to support your independent status.
  • Make sure to include yourself when the FAFSA asks how many people reside in your household.
  • Ask your school if they want your parents’ information even if you have independent status.

What If My Parents Refuse to Help Out?

The federal student aid program was designed with the idea that parents are responsible for helping to pay for their child’s college education. Students are assumed to have their parents’ financial support, but parents are not actually required to pay anything. So if your parents are refusing to help pay for your education but you’re still considered a dependent, things can get complicated in a hurry.

Here are a few steps you can take if your parents are refusing to help you:

  • If your parents don’t even want to fill out your financial aid forms, remind them that they are not required to pay anything, but that if they refuse to submit their information, you will not be able to qualify for aid. Do NOT forge your parents’ signatures under any circumstances.
  • Talk to a financial aid administrator at your school. Sometimes these individuals can intercede with parents to get them to file the appropriate paperwork.
  • Talk to your parents about exactly how much you need them to contribute. Show your interest in taking on a part-time job during school in order to help cover the costs. Make sure they understand that you appreciate any help they can give and that you plan to do your part as well.
  • Look into all your loan options. Unsubsidized Stafford Loans are available even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid (as long as you submit your FAFSA). There are also private loans which may help cover your costs.
  • Apply for as many scholarships as you can.
  • Consider completing part of your education at a more affordable university or at a community college.
  • Consider working and saving money until you turn 24, at which age you will automatically be considered independent.

Qualifying as an independent student can help you receive more financial aid. Be aware, however, that you must meet the government’s strict guidelines in order to achieve this status.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

Are You Eligible for Federal Financial Aid?
Top 5 Mistakes Students Make with Financial Aid
10 Frequently Asked Questions About Financial Aid
How to Use Scholarship Funds Responsibly

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