Independent Student vs. Dependent Student: Which are you?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA application) determines your FAFSA dependency status as either an independent student or a dependent student. The difference between the two centers on the level of access the student in question has to their parents’ financial resources. Filling out the FAFSA and knowing your dependency status is very important, as it determines how your financial aid is calculated and the maximum amount in Stafford Loans you can borrow.
Most traditional college students are dependent students, even if they are paying their own way through college or no longer have a relationship with their parents. There are specific circumstances in which a traditional college student would be considered an independent student, which will be explained at the end of the article.
The federal definition of an independent student is one who meets at least one of the following criteria:
- You are working on a degree beyond a bachelor’s, such as a master’s or doctorate
- You have a child or children, or other legal dependents, who receive more than half their financial support from you
- You are married (or separated but not divorced)
- You are at least 24 years old
- You are a veteran of the United States Armed Forces
- You are currently serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes
- If, at any time since you turned 13, both your parents were deceased, your were in foster care, or were a ward of the court
- You are an emancipated child as determined by a court judge
- You are homeless or at risk of homelessness as determined by the director of a HUD approved homeless shelter, transitional program, or high school liaison
If you do not meet any of those criteria, you are required to report parental information on your FAFSA, meaning you are classified as a dependent student.
In unusual circumstances, a student who does not meet any of these criteria may still be considered an independent student if a compelling case can be made to override the dependent student status. This can only be done by a qualified financial aid officer and is very rare.
- Your last surviving parent died after you first applied for financial aid.
- You and your parents have been separated and you have been granted refugee status by the U.S. Immigration Service.
Neither of these circumstances automatically qualifies you as an independent student instead of a dependent student. All circumstances must be reliably documented before consideration. If you believe your circumstances merit one of these exceptions, please see a financial aid counselor at the school you attend, have been admitted to, or the schools you intend to apply to in the future.
Also, in unusual circumstances, a student may be able to make a compelling case for their inability to provide the necessary information on the FAFSA, which may in turn allow you to qualify as an independent student as opposed to a dependent student. Such examples are:
- The parents reside in a location where mail delivery does not exist.
- The parent is mentally handicapped.
- The student suffered documentable parental abuse and contact with the parent would put the student in danger.
- The student was abandoned by parents.
- Both parents are incarcerated or institutionalized.
- Both parents lack the physical or mental capacity to raise the child.
- The parents’ whereabouts are unknown or the parents cannot be located.
- The parents are hospitalized for an extended period.
- The student was living in an unsuitable household (e.g., child removed from the household and placed in foster care).
- A married student’s spouse dies or student gets divorced.
If any of these are the case, please contact the financial aid office at your school or schools you plan on applying to.
- The student has been supporting his/herself for a period of time.
- The student has been supported by other relatives or friends for a period time.
- The student does not live with his/her parents.
- The student is angry with his/her parents and wishes not to speak to them.
- The parents are able but unwilling to provide their information.
- The parents are living in another country.
- The parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education.
- The parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes.
- FAFSA Home
- Demystifying the FAFSA
- FAFSA Season and the Financial Aid Reality Check
- Filling it out for the Self-Employed
- Financial Stability
- Revising: A Primer for Parents
- The Calculations Behind the Application
- The FAFSA: That Wasn't So Bad After All
- The FAFSA: Your gateway to financial aid
- Tips on Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- To-Do Lists, Anxiety, and Preparing for College
- Why Submit the FAFSA?
- You filed the application, but¦ do you know what it stands for?