Financial Help When Parents CAN Pay for College but WON’T

Question: I am a sophomore in high school and a very competitive student. When I graduate, I plan to attend a very competitive school for pre-med. However my parents have just told me that they are not willing to pay for my college education. The problem is that they make plenty of money, and I highly doubt I could get any financial aid from most schools. I really want to avoid taking any loans to pay for school, if possible, but I don’t know how else I could afford school. Is there a way that I can declare myself independent or indicate that I will be paying for school entirely on my own? Do you have any advice for someone in this situation? Thanks in advance for your help!

Unfortunately, college admission and financial aid offers have little sympathy for students in your situation. Well, let’s put it this way … they may feel sad for you, but they won’t make it up to you by providing independent student status.

There is a very specific list of circumstances that will allow anyone under age 24 to qualify as “emancipated.” See http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/fotw1011/help/fftoc03k.htm Once in a while, a student who doesn’t meet any of these criteria is able to successfully petition a college for independent status. But in such cases, there must be extreme circumstances (e.g., the student comes from an abusive home but is not in foster care). Even if you were to move out of your parents’ home and cover your own living expenses, you would not be viewed as “independent” for financial aid purposes.

I can understand why your parents don’t want to go into debt when you earn your degree and thus may encourage you to pick a less pricey school over an expensive one. But why won’t they pony up at all, since it sounds like they’re in a position to do so? Perhaps your first steps should be to ascertain whether they might provide some money for your college education, even if their magic number doesn’t come close to meeting what you will require. Perhaps they might agree to a compromise … e.g., if you contribute a specified amount via scholarships and your own earnings they will match it. Any chance?

Next, you should start considering colleges that offer “merit aid,” which is scholarship money that is not tied to income or need. The vast majority of colleges do provide merit money to their top recruits. This can range from full tuition+ room & board to just enough to cover books and pizzas.

Although some of the most sought-after colleges (e.g., the Ivy League) provide only need-based aid and not merit aid, there are still many extremely selective and prestigious places that offer both. However, your best shot at big merit money will be to apply to colleges where you are a far stronger candidate than the typical freshman.

A few places to start looking:

1) SuperMatch (http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/ ) Select all your preferences on the questionnaire. Since you’re just a sophomore, you may have to wing it with the SAT’s (Play around with different numbers.) Also under the “My Scores” heading, be sure to check the box that says, “I’m interested in schools where I would be well above average, to increase my financial aid opportunities.”

2) MeritAid.com (http://www.meritaid.com/ ) Again, you’ll have to estimate test scores, but this site can help you find colleges that offer merit money regardless of financial need


2) FastWeb (www.fastweb.com) This is an excellent database of “outside” scholarships (those not provided by colleges themselves.). While usually the best money does come right from the colleges, there are some biggies here that are worth pursuing. Even the smaller scholarships—which tend to be less competitive than the large ones, of course—can add up. Since you’re just in 10th grade, you have lots of time to apply for these. Once you complete the FastWeb questionnaire, FastWeb can keep you informed via email if new opportunities come along.

Finally, even though college officials have little wiggle-room when it comes to assisting students whose parents can afford to pay but refuse to do so, they occasionally have some. So, when it comes time to apply to college, write a letter to accompany your applications that explains your situation. Make sure you point out that you do understand that your parents’ ability to pay—and not their willingness—is what counts in financial aid offices. However, it can’t hurt for the admissions and finaid folks to know that you’re out there on your own, and it may help at least a little bit.

Good luck as you travel this bumpy road.

(posted 4/7/2011)