How to Qualify as Independent on the FAFSA

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Great tips on how to qualify as independent on the FAFSA--and what to do when you just can't.

The first time I went to college, I received no grants.  No aid.  No nothing.  Not from the government.  Not from my parents.  Not from my school.

I was a good student, but so was every other kid I graduated with.  Inflated GPAs meant the students at the top of the class had 5.0 GPAs. (Yes, that’s out of 4.0.) The students who took all the easy, non-honors, non-AP courses had a higher GPAs than other students who actually tried to challenge themselves with a more rigorous course load.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I wasn’t at the top of my class, but I had also challenged myself. My GPA was by no means abysmal, but it also wasn’t a 5.0. I received no merit-based scholarships. Too much competition.

My parents weren’t able to help. FAFSA formulas did not work in my favor. Who cared if I was supporting myself with three jobs?

Filling out the FAFSA with Divorced Parents

If your parents are divorced, on the FAFSA you only have to provide one income:  the income of the person who you lived with for a majority of the past 12 months.

If you lived with them both equally, you have to provide the income of the person who contributed more financial support to you.

Unfortunately for me, my parents weren’t technically divorced yet. Because there is no such thing as legal separation in the state of Pennsylvania, I had to provide both incomes.

How to Qualify as “Independent” for FAFSA Purposes

My situation isn’t unique. There are a myriad of reasons students don’t want to or feel they shouldn’t have to provide their parents’ incomes. The biggest reason is usually that they are supporting themselves.

That alone is not good enough of a reason for the FAFSA. Here are all the ways you could qualify as a dependent. Some of them you can’t help. And the ones you can, I wouldn’t recommend doing solely to get grant money.

  • Be 24-years-old+ at the time you are filing the FAFSA .
  • Be in the military or a veteran. Please don’t join up just to get grant money.  Or GI money for that matter.  This is a serious commitment that could literally cost you your life. At the very least it will change your lifestyle. I am so thankful for the people that fight for us everyday so selflessly, but make sure you’re willing to do it for the right reasons–not just college money.
  • Be an orphan/ward of the court.
  • Be in graduate school.
  • Be married. DO NOT GET MARRIED TO GET COLLEGE MONEY! There are so many other reasons to get married. And so many reasons not to. This is a lifelong commitment you’re talking about. A personal relationship. The decision to get married should not be based on how much money you can get from the government.
  • Have legal dependents of your own. DO NOT GET PREGNANT JUST TO GET GRANT MONEY! College is a full-time job. Being a parent is a full-time job. On top of all that you’ll probably have to get a full-time job even with all the grants in order to support yourselves. You don’t need three full-time jobs. You need to get a degree.
  • Have your school’s financial aid administrator change your status from dependent to independent due to unique circumstances. This is the best way to go.

Changing Your Status from Dependent to Independent

If you don’t naturally qualify for any of the first six reasons, I would highly recommend going to your school’s financial aid administrator. They have the power to change your status, but note that they cannot do it simply because you want them to.

Even if your parents do not claim you as a dependent on their taxes, you are still their dependent on the FAFSA. Even if you work 80 hours a week and pay all your own bills including rent at a location separate from their home, you are still their dependent on the FAFSA.

An extraordinary situation may convince your financial aid administrator that you should be considered independent. For example, if you’re 20 and haven’t talked to your parents in 3 years, you may have a case.

Go in and talk to them with confidence and assertion, but not anger or cockiness. You want something from them, and while you don’t want to get trampled, you do want to show that your case is legitimate.

Take with you any and all paperwork and/or documentation that may somehow apply to proving your point. Going in prepared not only ensures that you have the right paperwork that day, but it also shows your administrator that you’re serious, and perhaps more importantly, that you are, indeed, a responsible adult.

When You Cannot Qualify as Independent for FAFSA

Most people simply won’t qualify as independent until they’re 24. It stinks. It puts a lot of people who work hard and really want to attain their goals in a bad situation.

If you want to go to school without any debt and the government grants could help you do that, it may just be worth waiting. Work a couple years to save up money, then on your magic birthday get the most out of your age.

Only do that if it is right for you. Putting off education is never a good thing, and your salary in the early years of young adulthood may end up paling in comparison to that of your peers.

But taking on a ton of debt to finance a degree that may or may not provide you with a solid return on investment isn’t for everyone. In a world of crippling student loan debt, it’s smart to run your numbers and see which option is best for you: student loans or waiting it out until you’re twenty-four.

Whichever way you choose to go, make sure you apply for scholarships along the way, too. Like grants, they’re free college money that you will never have to pay back.


14 thoughts on “How to Qualify as Independent on the FAFSA

  1. nicoleandmaggie

    It always irritated me the parents who made a ton of money and then refused to pay for any school. I was in such a better situation because my parents made little money, so the amount I would have been on the hook for, had they not spent a lifetime scrimping and saving for our educations was so little comparatively. Sure teaching kids independence is important, but when it is YOUR fault that they’re on the hook for full tuition, that’s just not right.

    Of course, I did know one girl in college whose parents “refused” to pay because she was lesbian (so she got to be independent), but still gave her an insane allowance, luxury car, etc. etc. etc. A guy I knew was in the same situation vis-a-vis college tuition because he refused to be Mormon and was completely cut off from his parents and left school with 160K in debt while working full time in school… the school didn’t give him independent status.

    1. nicoleandmaggie

      It’s not even the helping paying that bothers me… it’s the not helping paying when you’re wealthy because what is the kid supposed to do? Having to get loans for ~10K which is your entire contribution public or private when your parents are poor is much easier than the 40-200K you’re on the hook for when they’re rich. If they just had different parents who couldn’t pay they’d be so much better off. Now, growing up wealthy does confer its own benefits, especially with connections and fancy K-12 schools etc, but still.

    2. femmefrugality

      Sounds like your friend’s parents were abusing the system…knowingly or not! What a shame. And I feel for the Mormon guy. I know it probably wasn’t the same administrator, but if abandonment due to sexual orientation is cause enough for an independent status, I feel like abandonment due to religious beliefs should get the same clout.

      Kudos to your parents. They sound like amazing people.

  2. Michelle P

    The BF recently decided to go back to school, and it sucks because even though he’s lived on his own and hasn’t had any help from his parents since over 5 years ago, that he has to ask his parents for their tax return information. I feel like this is a major invasion of privacy for them, and I think it’s stupid that he has to do that. UGH

    1. femmefrugality

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and just plain not right. I understand they want to avoid giving money to people who are already getting support, but I think the assumption that everyone has parents that take care of them in some way until they’re 24 is a huge leap.

  3. jlcollinsnh

    I was thinking about this just yesterday.

    Back in the day I put myself thru the University of Illinois as an in-state student. I could afford to do this on the $2000 I saved thru HS and the $1200 I made each summer taking down diseased Elm Trees. Total for all four years about $5000. But this was 40 years ago.

    Today my daughter is in the middle of her college career. She is also at a state school and has a yearly scholarship of $12,000. The total for a year is about $37,000 so we pay $25,000 each year. Total out of pocket will be about 100k.

    When I graduated in 1972 a new basic level car cost about $3000. Today it is 6x as much: $18,000.

    College education was $5000. Today, without the scholarships, $148,000. 30x as much. Yikes.

    1. femmefrugality

      It is getting harder and harder. I’m so happy for your daughter that she earned that scholarship! It just goes to demonstrate, though…even with a $12000! scholarship the cost of college is outrageous.

      Pile that on top of issues of funding…I know here is PA our lovely governor has already taken a hacksaw to K-12 funding and talks are going on about doing the same to post-secondary. I’m not sure if anything’s happened with that yet. But it will cause tuition to rise even more. And I kind of feel like a highly educated populous is something that would help us get back on our feet as a country….ironic, isn’t it?

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