How to determine independent or dependent student status
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines your status as either an independent student or a dependent student. The difference between the two centers on the level of access the student has to financial resources from their parents. Knowing your dependency status is very important, as it determines how your aid is calculated and the maximum amount in Stafford Loans you can borrow.
Most traditional college students are dependent - 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 independent that will be explained here.
One important exception occurs when a student who would normally be classified as a dependent student can borrow more than the standard dependent student limit in Stafford Loans. If your parents are denied a PLUS Loan, you may qualify for additional unsubsidized Stafford Loan funding. In these situations, dependent students may be allowed to borrow up to the same maximum amount in Stafford Loans as independent students ($12,500 for 2009-2010). You may have to provide proof of the parent's PLUS Loan denial to the financial aid office at your school.
If you are part of the growing number of non-traditional students returning to college or starting for the first time, even if you have the financial support of your parents for the costs of your education, you may be considered independent for the purpose of federal financial aid. In 2000, independent students made up 37% of undergraduates in both public and private 4-year schools, and 64% at community colleges.*
Students are classified as independent or dependent because federal student aid programs are based on the principle that it is the parent's responsibility to provide for their children's education. Your parents' ability to pay is considered when deciding your eligibility for financial aid, not whether they actually give you any money.
The federal definition of an independent student is one who can answer yes to any of the following questions, for the 2009-2010 filing year:
- Were you born before January 1, 1986?
- As of the date you will be submitting the FAFSA, are you married? (Answer yes if you are separated, but not divorced.)
- Will you be working on a degree beyond a bachelor's degree, such as a master's or doctorate, in school year 2009-2010?
- Are you currently serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes?
- Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?
- Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you, or do you have dependants (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2010?
- At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
- Are you, or were you an emancipated minor as determined by a court in your state of legal residence at the time you received the determination?
- Are you, or were you in legal guardianship as determined by a court in your state of legal residence at the time you received the determination?
- At any time on or after July 1, 2008, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?
- At any time on or after July 1, 2008, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?
- At any time on or after July 1, 2008, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
Applicants who answer "no" to all of these questions are dependent students and are required to report parental information on the application.
In unusual circumstances, a student who does not meet any of these criteria may still be considered independent if a compelling case can be made to override the dependent status. This can only be done by a qualified financial aid officer and is very rare.
Unless you meet any one of the criteria stated under Independent Student Status or there are some exceptional circumstances, you will be considered a dependent student for financial aid purposes.
Exceptional circumstances include but are not limited to:
- Your last surviving parent died after you first applied for financial aid.
- You and your parents are separated and you have been granted refugee status by the U.S. Immigration Service.
Neither of these circumstances automatically give you independent status. All circumstances must be documented before consideration. If you believe your circumstances may be one of these exceptions, please see a financial aid counselor at your school or at a prospective school.
You should be aware that you are not automatically independent for financial aid purposes simply because your parents stop claiming you as a tax exemption or refuse to give you support for your college education. Your parents' unwillingness, inability, or reluctance to help pay for your educational costs does not make you independent. Becoming emancipated or qualifying for in-state tuition at a public institution also does not mean that you are independent for federal financial aid purposes. In cases where you do not qualify as an independent student but you receive no parental support, counselors in the financial aid office can provide you with information about alternative financing and employment opportunities to help you pay for your college expenses.
A common misconception is that by virtue of not being claimed on your parent's income tax for two years, you can become an "independent" student.
In unusual circumstances, a student may be able to make a compelling case for their inability to provide the necessary information on the FAFSA. 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.
Reasons that are NOT considered for changing status are:
- The student has been supporting his/herself for a time.
- The student has been supported by other relatives or friends for a 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.
A dependency override is when a financial aid officer changes the status of a student for the purpose of financial aid from dependent to independent. It is a very rare occurrence and typically involves additional paperwork, verification and third-party referrals. Overrides are only done for students in exceptional mitigating circumstances, and not for families who simply want to change how their student's education is financed.
* Independent Undergraduates, 1999-2000. National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005151