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).
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