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!

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