Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious…

Probably like many of you, I grew up watching Disney films. Perhaps, not like many of you, I remember that before the days of DVDs, streaming services and (dare I say it) VHS and Betamax tapes, the only way to see an older Disney movie was when the film was brought back into the theaters. Every couple of years, Disney would re-release a classic film so that a new generation could see it for themselves. There is nothing like seeing the original film on a large screen.

Well, luckily, Disney is doing it again with some of their princess movies in the run up to the Frozen 2 release. Right now, Beauty and the Beast is in theaters, and the film gives us today’s blog post title.

Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!

The “grey stuff” has its place in the world of Financial Aid as well. Often there are situations in a family that just don’t fit within the “rules” established by the Federal government, and a financial aid administrator has to rely upon her Professional Judgment to make a decision about that particular case. In these cases, there is no easy decision, and each aid officer may make a different decision.

No place is this more true than in the case of Dependency Overrides. If you read my last blog entry, we discussed the differences between the standards for dependent and independent students. But sometimes situations fall into the grey.

Imagine a situation where a student lives with his grandparents, but has not legally been adopted by them and they do not have legal guardianship of him. Further imagine that the student is not in contact with his father, and his mother – who lives out of state in a residential substance abuse treatment program – has had a history of mental and/or physical abuse. In this situation while the “rules” would tell us that the student needs mother’s information, it is likely that a financial aid administrator would allow this student to be considered independent.

So how does something like this work if you are a student with an unusual circumstance? It all begins with filing your FAFSA. Even if you are unable to have your parent(s) complete their section of the form, you need to do your sections and when asked if your parents are able / willing to provide information, answer “no”. Your FAFSA will be processed (although it will be considered incomplete until you take the next steps).

You then need to send a letter requesting a dependency override to the college(s) you are considering attending. If you are applying to multiple colleges for admission, send the paperwork to each of them; only one of them will need to complete the override to allow your form to be processed, but the school you ultimately decide to attend will need to make this determination themselves.

What information should you send?

  1. If the college has a Dependency Override form, submit that. Note that many colleges do not have such a form, or do not have it featured on their web page. If you do see such a form (like this example from the University of Central Florida) then complete it and follow the instructions. If you don’t see a form on the college’s web page, then contact the financial aid office and ask if they have such a form. If not they will provide instructions on how to submit this.
  2. Write a letter of special circumstances. In almost every case, the financial aid office will want a letter from you providing information about your situation. This is not the time to withhold information, or be coy. You should provide as much information as possible in your own words as to why you are unable to rely upon parental support.
  3. Provide a letter documenting your circumstances from a third-party. Your case for appeal will be stronger if you can provide a letter from someone in a professional relationship with you. Examples include (but aren’t limited to): a member of the clergy, a therapist, a guidance officer, a lawyer, a faculty member. The letter should be on letterhead, signed and provide contact information for the submitter. It also needs to document the case you are presenting (for example, stating that this individual knows that there has been a history of abuse or neglect). Note that a letter from your relative, friend, roommate, or someone else in a personal relationship with you is usually not acceptable.
  4. Provide whatever additional back-up documentation you can, and the school requests. If the school asks for it, provide any other information you can supporting your request. This may include a copy of a lease, a letter from the person providing you housing, a copy of bill showing a different address from your parents, or any other documentation the school requires.

Note that Dependency Overrides are annual, so you will need to again establish your need for one in each year you are a student (or until you become independent for some other reason).

While this may sound complicated, every financial aid office provides a number of these overrides every year. Don’t let your relationship with your parents (or your lack of one) be a stumbling block to your qualifying for financial aid.

There is one condition, though, where a lack of parental “support” usually doesn’t qualify a student for a waiver, and that is a parent who is simply unwilling to complete the FAFSA. As I said in my earlier post, completing the FAFSA does not “obligate” a parent to pay for college; the FAFSA is simply a way to determine eligibility for financial aid. The Federal Government will not allow an override simply on the basis of unwillingness.

In the case where there is no mitigating situation, and a parent simply won’t cooperate, students do have one final option. If you are in this situation, you can submit your FAFSA without parental information but the only source of aid you will qualify for will be the Unsubsidized Direct Loan. This isn’t a terrible last option (it’s better than paying for college by credit card) but there are matters to consider when borrowing student loans (and we will get into that in a later blog entry).

So, now that you have tried some of the “grey stuff”, tell me — what questions do you have? What Disney movie is your favorite? And what memories do you have of seeing one in the theaters?

It all (in)depends…

There is a running joke in financial aid. When asked a complicated question, a well trained financial aid officer will answer “it depends”. That’s it; that’s the joke. Not that funny, huh? More of a truth. Often in financial aid, the complexity of each situation means that there is no easy answer and that each answer is context dependent.

It always depends…

The issue of dependency itself is one with complications. What I mean by this is defining who is (and is not) a dependent student. Dependent students have to have their parent(s) fill out their financial aid applications, and therefore have their financial aid eligibility impacted by their parent(s) income and assets.

For Federal Student Aid, there are a few “rules” that determine if the FAFSA requires parental information. Here is a graphic that shows these rules (but keep in mind, it depends; more about this later):

So, if you read the graphic above, you will see that the following groups of students are automatically independent (as long as you qualify for one of those, you are independent):

  1. Students 24 years of age or older.
  2. Students enrolled in graduate (post-undergraduate) programs.
  3. Students who are married or separated (but not divorced).
  4. Students who have children for whom they provide more than 1/2 of their support.
  5. Students who have dependents other than children who live with them and for whom they provide more than 1/2 of their support.
  6. Students who are orphans, in foster care, wards of the court, who have a legal guardian (other than their parent), OR who are unaccompanied youth or homeless (or at risk of homelessness).
  7. Students who are on active duty for the military.
  8. Students who are veterans of the US armed forces.

Note that nowhere above does it say anything about being self-sufficient. So, let’s say you are a 22 year old who never went to college and who has been living independently from your parents since you graduated high school — you would not qualify for independence; we would still need your parents’ information for the FAFSA.

Also you’ll notice that nowhere about does it say what to do if your parent(s) refuse to fill out the FAFSA. The assumption is that your parents will be willing to do so. Here is where a number of parents / students misunderstand a basic principle:

Filling out the FAFSA does NOT obligate a person to pay for college.

The wise author of this blog…

The FAFSA is not like a mortgage application where you have committed to repaying (or paying) for college; it is more like an application for benefits. With a FAFSA you are seeing what funds you might be able to qualify for, there is no “obligation” to then accept these funds, or in fact pay. That comes later.

So, let’s say your parents simply won’t fill out the FAFSA. Or you aren’t in a relationship with your parents, but you are under 24 and don’t otherwise qualify to be independent. What do you do then?

Check out my next entry on the blog to see what options you have!

New beginnings (or beginning news or starting again)…

The school year has begun as all over the country students are back in classrooms, the traffic is backed up with school buses and the temperatures have begun to cool (although, sigh, not really in Florida).

The School Year Begins

Another aspect of the start of the new year is the beginning of the financial aid and admissions application cycles for those of you who are seniors in high school (or adults thinking of going back to school, or students thinking of going to graduate school). Now is the time where you are beginning to think “what’s next?”, when your parents, friends, neighbors and guidance officers ask you for the names of colleges you are thinking about, and when you are faced with the question (that honestly never goes away) of “what do I want to be when I grow up?”

As you think about your college plans, it is natural that one of the areas of concern is money. Money plays an important part in your college decision process, but the good news is that if you follow the plans outlined on this blog, and the advice of your guidance officers and others, money doesn’t have to be the deciding factor for you. If the system works, you should be able to decide upon the best college for you based on fit, not on finances.

Over the past several months, I have been busy helping students at my school get ready to start their school year. Now that their enrollment has begun, I plan to turn my attention to this blog and helping you — whether you are a senior in high school, a parent of a student, a student currently in college, or just an interested adult — learn about college financial aid, about money management, and about how best to make the system work for you.

So here is my question for you. Who are you? I want to make this blog a conversation with you. Sure, I like to talk; I like to write (I am a published poet and I was voted “most talkative” as my high school senior superlative), but I prefer to have a dialogue. A conversation is much more interesting to me than a monologue.

Tell me what you want to know? As I target at least one blog entry each week, what would you like me to focus on? What questions do you have about the college process? How can we best learn together?

Welcome to the Fall… to pumpkin spice and maple frosting… to jack-o-lanterns and apple cider… to crisp nights and color-changing leaves. And welcome to the Moneyman College Financial Aid Blog where we learn about college financial aid together.