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Articles / Paying for College / Can I be Independent for Financial Aid Purposes?
Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | July 31, 2009

Can I be Independent for Financial Aid Purposes?

Question: Is it possible to be independent solely because I no longer live at home and get no help from my parents? I am 19 years old and am currently living with a relative in a room that I'm renting. I'm trying to get as many hours as possible at my job as well as picking up extra babysitting hours to save up for college. My parents can't afford to help pay for my college education, and I know i can't do it on my own. Considering I get no financial help from them and do not live at home do you think it's possible to be independent and get some extra financial aid?

"The Dean" gets a lot of questions about Independent Student status, usually from students like you who are truly on their own. However, being "Independent" for financial-aid purposes is a whole other story, and most colleges stick to the letter of the law.

You can read more about the guidelines that determine Independent status here: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc03k.htm

As you will see, if your parents are still living, you are under age 24, and you are not married or a parent yourself, in foster care, a veteran, or a ward of the court (i.e., your parents' parental rights have been terminated, due to abuse or other concerns), then you will not qualify as Independent.

However, if your parents' household income is low, then you will probably qualify for significant financial aid, even though they will be expected to help you fill out your FAFSA forms and to contribute to your college costs, if they are able.

It's also possible (although, unfortunately, improbable) that you can convince financial aid officers at your prospective colleges to determine that you are Independent, even though you don't meet the official criteria. To do so, I suggest that you gather letters from several adults that confirm what you have told us about your situation. One such letter could come from your relative-landlord. Others should come from those in a position of some "authority"--e.g., a high school guidance counselor or principal, a social worker, a minister or other member of the clergy, etc. An employer could write on your behalf as well

Most college financial aid officials do have some latitude when it comes to granting Independent status. And, even if you don't manage to get such status, there may be financial aid officers who will be sympathetic to your plight and will help you to get extra aid, where it's available. When you contact the college officials, be as specific about your family circumstances as you can be. Why are you no longer living at home? For instance, was there abuse of any kind (physical, sexual, verbal)? Is someone in the home a substance abuser? Do you have a step-parent who doesn't want you around? etc. Lots of high school and college students claim that they simply can't get along with their parents. But if you can provide compelling reasons to explain why your home life was especially difficult for you, this might work in your favor.

Schedule the appointment(s) in advance. Try to go in person, rather than make a phone appointment, if this is possible. Once you are there, act appreciative for any help you have received so far, even if it's minimal. Be grateful--not entitled--as you ask for more.

You have a challenging road ahead, but it sounds like you are prepared to navigate it, however bumpy it becomes. Best of luck to you. Be persistent!

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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