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Dependent vs. Independent Student on the FAFSA

a student looks at a computer screen in a dark room

With the many changes in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the ongoing fixes being rolled out, one thing that’s still the same is how a student’s dependency status is determined. 

Understanding your dependency status is an essential part of completing the FAFSA. It can affect the amount of money you qualify to receive in federal grants and loans. 

The basics of the FAFSA 

The FAFSA is a tool used by the US government in conjunction with colleges, universities, and some trade schools to determine what you or your family can expect to pay for your education. 

Once you have entered your information into the application (along with a parent if you are a dependent), the FAFSA will give you e a number referred to as the Student Aid Index (SAI). This is an approximation of what you or your family can pay. 

Independent students must only report their own finances on the FAFSA. On the other hand, dependent students must report their finances along with their parents’ finances on the FAFSA. 

As you can imagine, your dependency status can affect the amount of money you qualify to receive in federal grants and loans. As a general rule, independent students receive more financial assistance than dependent students. 

Determining dependency status on the FAFSA

For FAFSA, what determines whether a student is viewed as dependent or independent? 

An INDEPENDENT student must meet ONE of the following criteria: 

  • At least 24 years old by December 31st of the award year
  • Married
  • Working on a graduate degree
  • You are currently on active duty or a veteran of the US Armed Forces
  • You are supporting children or other dependents, providing at least half of their financial support
  • You have deceased parents
  • At any time since the age of 13, you have been in foster care or a ward of the court
  • You are an emancipated minor
  • You are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or at risk of being homeless

If NONE of the above criteria describes you, you are a DEPENDENT student. 

When a student is considered dependent, it means that their eligibility for financial aid will depend not only on their own income and assets but also upon the income and assets of their family.

Special circumstances affecting dependency status

Sometimes, special circumstances make it so that you do not technically meet the requirements to be classified as an independent student, but you also do not have the traditional family situation of a dependent student. 

If this is the case for you, talk directly to the Financial Aid office at the college, university, or trade school you’re planning to go to. The questions on the FAFSA application are not nuanced enough to accommodate situations outside of the typical student profile. 

For instance, special circumstances can include:

1. Your parent(s) are not US citizens, but you are:

US citizens whose parent(s) are not US citizens can complete the FAFSA as normal. Their parents will complete the parent portion of the FAFSA by inputting the parent’s Social Security Number (SSN) as all zeros. When this is the case, the parent signature form must be printed and mailed rather than signed electronically. 

2. You’ve lost contact with your parent(s):

When a student has lost all contact with their parent(s) but does not meet the criteria for an independent student, a FAFSA can still be submitted without parent information. In these cases, the student must work with the Financial Aid Office of their intended school to determine how to proceed. Often, specific documentation must be provided supporting the claim that all ties have been lost. 

3. Your parent is unwilling or unable to provide financial information:

Sometimes, parents can’t or won’t provide the information required to complete a FAFSA application. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case, including strained relationships, students no longer living at home, or mistaken beliefs about how the financial information may be used.

Is it better to not share parent financial information?

Some parents mistakenly think their student will get more financial aid if they don’t provide their information on the FAFSA. In truth, it is rare for a student to get an independent designation for FAFSA purposes. These situations end up being managed between the student and the intended college, usually resulting in a student qualifying for loans only.  

Dependant vs. independent FAFSA status examples

In my experience as a high school and college counselor, I have seen many students declared independent based on the standard criteria shared above. However, I have seen only one instance where a student’s dependency status was changed from dependent to independent without a life-changing event, like a marriage, birth of a child, etc. 

I worked with a community college student whose parents took the student’s younger sister and left town without a trace. The parents changed their cell numbers and were completely unreachable. Months passed by the time the student came to me asking if I could help her. Even in this extreme circumstance, it was a challenge to get her dependency status changed

In general, it’s important to note that when any circumstances change after a FAFSA has been filed, you should always let the Financial Aid Office of the intended school know. This applies to changes in dependency status as well as changes in one’s financial picture (job loss, job change, etc…). 

Why you need to be truthful on the FAFSA

When filing a FAFSA, it is important to fill it out truthfully and simply accept the resulting SAI. Attempting to “finesse” the FAFSA in hopes of a better financial reward is fraudulent, and if discovered, penalties can range from being required to pay back awarded funds to fines and imprisonment. 

Final thoughts on dependency status and the FAFSA

The basic takeaway here is that you need to complete your FAFSA application each year. The sooner, the better, too. Be truthful on the application and follow the guidelines. Your dependency status is simply another piece of information about you. 

Being declared dependent or independent on FAFSA may affect your financial picture in the eyes of colleges, but it will not prevent a college from awarding you money through other means. 

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