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How to File a FAFSA as an Independent Undergraduate Student

It’s a common financial aid quandary: Why does a student who does not receive financial support from mom and dad need to include parents’ finances—including their most recent tax returns—when completing a FAFSA form for federal financial aid? Some students can avoid it, but to do so, you must meet the government’s definition of an “independent student”.

Dependent vs. independent students

The government assumes that most students attending college will receive some kind of financial assistance from their parents if the parents can afford it. That support may include at least a partial payment of tuition fees, but a free room and hot meals while you’re studying also counts. Therefore, the feds consider undergraduates to be dependent students by default. (Graduate and professional students, on the other hand, are considered independent students by default).

What this means for undergraduates is in order to apply for federal financial aid, including grants, Stafford loans, Perkins loans, work-study, and more, you’ll need to get mom and dad to crunch some numbers and fork over their 1040’s – even if they’re not giving you a penny for school.

The government does provide an independent student designation for students that can convince their financial aid office they are truly independent.

Criteria for filing as an independent student

To complete a FAFSA as independent student, however, you must meet some pretty specific criteria. You must

  • Be at least 24 on or before December 31 of the award year;
  • Be an orphan (both parents deceased) or a ward of the court;
  • Be a veteran;
  • Be a graduate or professional student;
  • Be married;
  • Have legal dependents;
  • Receive a waiver from a financial aid administrator for unusual circumstances.

If you can prove one of the above situations, you can change your status by completing a dependency review form (ask your college financial aid office for one). Be warned that unusual circumstances can be extremely difficult to prove, and changes in status are rarely granted (i.e. moving out of your parents’ house combined with the fact that they refuse to contribute for tuition is not a good enough reason).

About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

  1. Professionalism says:

    Been there, done that, read the book, and wrote it.

    When I first applied to be an undergraduate I was in a unique situation. My parents did not have the money to even pay for my books at college, and my father in a lot of debt due to tax leans, credit, and recent bankruptcy. Therefore I was making money on my own and attempting to get loans for myself. However because I was not married, under 25, and not veteran everyone I would contact (from finical aid counselors to the people in the Department of Education) treated me like crap and or played “dumb”.

    Even though I received NO finical support during the entire time I was an undergraduate, I still could not apply for loans, scholarships, and student aid on my own. My father be grudgingly file taxes and give up his W2s and my mother did not work (if she did it was temporary.)

    Every year it was a waiting game, I would go to school, apply for student aid, the School’s finical aid office would sit on it, then the student accounts office would bombard me with letters and phones demanding their money. At the last minute my father would give up his W2s or file taxes, apply for loans (only to have them rejected)and then I would have to go right behind him and apply. On more than one occasion the university locked my accounts and held my transcripts only to release them after I was approved for ridiculously high rate loans, or the left over student aid/grant money (which was slim to none). I had to do this “dance” every year for four years. The “expected family contribution” is what I had to pay out of pocket or either via another loan.

    Eventually I graduated after four years, with a gpa well over 3.0, and consecutive Dean’s list during my last three semesters.

    However now, because I lack a “graduate/professional” degree employers in my field (especially on the Federal side) refuse to hire me or even consider me as a candidate.

  2. Every time i come here I am not dissapointed, nice post

  3. I have the same problem..financial aid sucks and there has to be a way around this..i feel it is very unfair

  4. They found a fancy little loop hole to throw the majority of students into. My question is, if i manage to get my parents tax information will i still not get aid because i claim myself? i would love to know now before i go through the hassle of trying to get my parents to file. It makes me feel a lot better knowing im not alone though.

  5. cam flynn says:

    Man financial aid is bull.

    It gets better for me though. Well, technically for my friend. Neither of her parents are employed or have been employed in the last ten years (both are listed as ‘disabled’ and get money from the government). Their EFC is, in turn, $0.

    So just recently she called the school she will be attending in the fall to ask about the FAFSA (which she already applied for well over a month ago…going on two now, I believe) only to be told that the school will not be giving her money. She has a scholarship from them, but she won’t be receiving any FAFSA money. She has no clue why, only that they told her ‘sorry, no dice.’

    What is also unfair is that we have the same general grades in school and I have a $21,000 yearly scholarship while she only has a $16,000 one. And she applied several months before I did.

    It’s…well, like I said. Financial aid is bull. I’m focusing my time on getting my money through other means, especially since my mother all but disowned me (basically told me that I meant nothing to her and never would, but refused to go to court and actually do the deed), so I still have to file as a dependant, and thus, since our ‘EFC’ is $13,000, I can expect to get little to no help through financial aid.

    • why not try to get emancipated before you 18th birthday? You can try to get her to write a letter you can write and have her sign it and show it to a financial aid worker (and I mean the people under salary not the student workers).

  6. There is a way to get around this to some extent– if you get your parents to apply for a PLUS loan, and they get denied, you can use that information to qualify for the unsubsidized Stafford loans (usually set up for independent students). If your parents can’t afford to help you, and don’t have awesome credit, this can be a nice way to help you out.

  7. I am 22years old. I am not married, i have no children. My father was never a financial supporter and passed away last year. My mother works 50 hours a week and makes great money but cannot/will not help me through school. I am a bartender, but can not afford to pay for school. I recently moved out. I have been paying my own way since i was 17 and havent been claimed on my parents taxes in 4 years. Is there anything I can do to qualify as an independent for FASFA?? (shy of getting pregnant/married)