When a Child Is an Independent Student

I receive emails occasionally from parents who strongly believe that their children should pay for their own bachelor’s degrees.

Often the moms and dads in this camp paid for their college education and believe that it was a character-building experience.

What these parents don’t necessarily appreciate is that when they were young it was possible to cover the cost of one year of college tuition by working an entire summer. Those days are long gone.

I also hear from teenagers, who are distraught, because their affluent parents are only promising to pay a token amount for their college education or nothing at all.

For example, a high school student in Maryland contacted me whose parents earned about $140,000 a year, but had only managed to save a total of $8,000 for her and her twin brother’s college costs. The parents expected the twins to cover the rest of the tab.

Affluent teenagers like these are at a real disadvantage because financial aid formulas are heavily based on the parents’ income. So students who face this financial burden on their own aren’t going to get a break unless they can qualify as independent students.

If you want to jump into heated exchanges on the issue of who should pay for college, I’d urge you to read the following five-year-old old blog post of mine that continues to attract many viewers and comments (nearly 500 comments and counting!):

Deadbeat Parents Who Won’t Help Pay for College

Who Qualifies as an Independent Student

Regardless of what your  opinion is of who should pay for college, some parents believe that they have discovered an excellent way to reduce the family’s college costs:

Have their children qualify as independent students when applying for financial aid.

When students do qualify as independent, they often can qualify for more financial aid, including:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
  • State need-based
  • Need-based grants from a college

Extra assistance is possible because the parents’ income and assets wouldn’t be considered in financial aid formulas.

Some parents hope their teenagers can be declared independent students so they can qualify for need-based financial aid, but earning that designation will be impossible for many teenagers.

Independency Questions

It is, however, difficult is it to be classified as an independent student.

A student must answer yes to at least one of the questions that the federal government asks to determine if an undergraduate is eligible for financial aid as an independent student.

Here are the federal questions:

1. Will you be 24 years or older by Dec. 31 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?

2. As of today, are you married?

3. Will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, or graduate certificate, etc.)?

4. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)

5. Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?

6. Do you now have children – or will you have – children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018?

7. Do you now have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2018?

8. 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?

9. Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship?

10. At any time since you turned 13, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or was self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by:

  • Your high school or district homeless liaison.
  • The director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • The director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program.

Disqualifying as an Independent Student

The following actions will not allow an otherwise dependent student to qualify as independent for aid purposes:

  • The child moves into an apartment and begins supporting him or herself.
  • Parents stop claiming their child on taxes.

Independent Status and the PROFILE

The PROFILE schools will use the federal dependency definition when deciding who qualifies for state and federal aid, but they aren’t obligated to rely on the federal definition when determining who gets their own institutional aid. Individual colleges can set their own policies for independent students.

Seeking a Dependency Exception

Even if a student can’t qualify as an independent student based on the federal requirements, a student can ask for an override from the school that he or she will be attending.

Here are potential reasons for an override:

  • Student left home because of sexual, physical or mental abuse.
  • The student has lost contact with the parents who are in another country or otherwise estranged.
  • The parents are incarcerated or lack physical or mental capacity.

As a general rule, a student will qualify for a dependency override only in extreme circumstances.

Bottom Line:

  1. It’s extremely difficult for a traditionally aged undergraduate to qualify as an independent student.
  2. It is possible to appeal a determination that the child is a dependent student for financial aid purposes.



Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Hi, Lynn! I know that this course is focused on financial aid/paying for college for undergraduates. However, I anticipate that I may have a crossover year where I have one child in undergraduate school, and another in graduate school. Is any child in graduate school automatically independent even if they haven’t hit age 24? I’m just trying to figure out whether a graduate student is completely on their own from a financing perspective or if they get pulled into part of the EFC calculation for the child still in undergraduate school (i.e., listed as another member of the household in college full-time).

  2. Hi Lynn — You stated above that if a child moves out and supports him/herself and parent stops claiming student on taxes this is inadequate to be considered independent. Is this correct? What more could the student do if s/he is really self supporting? Is their only option to speak directly with the colleges?