What Is an Independent Student for FAFSA?
A key part of the college admissions journey is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Given how much is involved in the application, it is often a difficult process to understand, especially since much of the FAFSA contains terms and information that families are unfamiliar with.
There are two ways a student can file and qualify for financial aid – as a dependent or as an independent.
Am I Dependent or Independent?
It is important to understand whether you are a dependent or independent because your dependency status determines what information you need to include when you file your FAFSA.
Typically, most college-bound students are dependent – they are between the ages of 18-24, rely on their parents’ support to pay for college, and are not married.
Therefore, parent information must be included on the FAFSA. If you do not meet the criteria for dependent status, then you might qualify as independent.
An independent student is assumed to not have financial support from their parents. When filing FAFSA as an independent student, your parents’ or legal guardians’ financial details are not taken into account.
What Is an Independent Student for FAFSA?
Paying for your own college expenses may not be enough to qualify you as an independent student. In order to be considered independent for FAFSA, the Department of Education (DOE) established certain criteria to meet.
You must be at least one of the following:
- 24 years older or older by December 31 of the award year
- an orphan (both parents deceased), ward of the court, in foster care, or previously a ward of the court when 13 years old or older
- a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States or serving on active duty for other than training purposes
- a graduate or professional student
- a married individual
- an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship as determined by the court
- a homeless youth
- a student for whom a college financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances
- a student with legal dependents other than a spouse who live with you and receive more than half of their financial support from you
How to File FAFSA as an Independent Student
Filing your FAFSA as an independent requires your personal and financial information including your:
- date of birth
- Social Security number
- checking and savings account balances
- details about the school you plan to attend
To help you with the process, here is a step-by-step walkthrough on how to apply for your FAFSA.
Once you submit, the Financial Aid Offices of the colleges and universities you listed on the FAFSA will review it. Depending on the types of loans you receive, the college may require additional proof to verify your independent status.
After verifying your status, your college can then send information to the DOE, which will then finalize the processing of your FAFSA.
Do You Get More Financial Aid as an Independent Student?
The DOE subtracts your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from your Cost Of Attendance (COA) to determine your FAFSA amount. As an independent student, your EFC is the income or assets you can spend on your education.
Since you may have fewer assets and a lower income, this can directly impact how much aid you will receive. Therefore, you may qualify for more financial aid than some dependent students.
But this is not guaranteed.
Be aware, if you are employed and don’t own a home, or have dependents, a higher percentage of your income is counted as being available for educational expenses.
Plan Ahead if You’re Filing FAFSA as Independent
FAFSA filing as an independent requires verifying your dependency status, which can add time to processing your application.
Additionally, some schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
Therefore, it’s important for you to file your FAFSA way ahead of the annual filing deadline.
Can You Ask for a FAFSA Dependency Override?
In some cases, you can still complete the FAFSA as an independent student, even if you don’t meet the DOE’s guidelines.
To do so, you’ll need to ask for a FAFSA dependency override.
It is up to each school as to whether or not they concede an override, but self-sufficiency or parental refusal to provide information are not reasons enough.
The Department of Education allows you to fill out the FAFSA without providing parent or legal guardian information if you have circumstances such as:
- your parents are incarcerated
- you left home because of an abusive family environment
- you don’t know where your parents are and are unable to contact them
- you’re older than 21, and younger than 24, homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless and self-supporting
Is There a FAFSA Independent Loophole?
Loophole stories have made the news, sparking discussions about whether the process is ethical, and how need-based aid is calculated.
In order to be considered financially independent, some parents have turned over legal guardianship of their child to a family friend or relative before the child turns 18. This is generally done in order to find a college financial loophole that will help lower the cost of college.
For now this is a loophole, but one that could be still involve fraud and perjury if pursued.
The bottom line: before you fill out FAFSA, review the dependency checklist provided at studentaid.gov, and/or speak to a financial aid administrator.
Knowing whether you qualify as independent or dependent will not only impact the amount of aid you may receive, but what schools you can afford to attend.
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