The Department of Education doesn’t make it easy for undergraduate students to qualify as independents when filling out their FAFSA.
There are only ten specific circumstances where a student automatically counts as an independent. All other students are counted as dependants and must report parental income information to qualify for financial aid.
However, there is an exception for students with special circumstances. In some situations, your college’s financial aid office may count you as an independent student even if you don’t otherwise qualify.
The Ten Automatic Qualifiers for Independent Student Status
When it comes to money and family, many students have complicated situations.
However, the Department of Education tries to simplify things by asking borrowers ten simple questions. If the answer to any of the following is yes, you are independent. Answer no to all ten, and you are a dependent student unless you qualify under the special circumstances exception.
To automatically count as an independent student, you must be one of the following:
- At least 24 years old,
- Working on a master’s degree or doctorate degree,
- A parent,
- Someone with dependants who receive more than half their support from you,
- Active duty military,
- A veteran of the U.S. armed forces,
- An orphan or in foster care,
- An emancipated minor or someone other than your parent or stepparent has legal guardianship of you, or
- Determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless.
If you think you might qualify under one of the ten automatic categories but are unsure, this page from the Department of Education breaks down the requirements in more detail.
If you believe you are an independent student because your parents cannot help or refuse to participate, you will have to qualify as an independent under the special circumstances exception.
Special Circumstances to Qualify as an Independent on the FAFSA
Sometimes people don’t meet one of the ten categories of independent students, but it would be truly unfair to call them dependent students.
If this describes your situation, you can complete the FAFSA without including parental information. On the FAFSA, you can say that you cannot provide parental information due to special circumstances.
According to the Department of Education, special circumstances can include the following situations:
- You don’t know where your parents are, and you cannot contact them,
- Your parents are incarcerated,
- You left home due to an abusive environment, or
- You are older than 21 but not yet 24, and you are homeless or self-supporting and at risk of becoming homeless.
Note from the Sherpa: These are only example situations provided by the Department of Education. Other issues may also qualify under the special circumstances exception.
Unfortuantely, marking that you have special circumstances on the FAFSA isn’t enough. You must take additional steps to get your independent status approved.
Required Steps for Students with Special Circumstances to get Independent Status
After completing the FAFSA, you need to reach out to your school’s financial aid office to explain your situation. Tell them that you could not provide parental income information due to special circumstances.
The financial aid office will likely have more questions and may request additional documentation.
The Department of Education suggests collecting written evidence to help prove that you are not a dependent. Possible written evidence includes: court or law enforcement documents, and written letters from school counselors, clergy, or social workers.
Your school’s financial aid office will then determine your dependency status. If they find that you are an independent student, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be lowered to $0.
Unfortunately, if the school determines that you are a dependent student, there is no way to appeal the decision to the Department of Education.
What if my Parent Refuses to Contribute the Expected Family Contribution?
The EFC Formula may appear to be complicated. However, it is still a blunt force equation that is not accurate in all situations.
In some cases, parents have the resources to help but are unwilling to do so. In other circumstances, high numbers might not adequately reflect a parent’s ability to contribute.
Unfortuantely, there isn’t an easy answer for families in this situation.
My advice to students with an EFC that doesn’t match their financial circumstances is usually to contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for additional help.
Getting Additional Help from the Office of Financial Aid
The job of the Office of Financial Aid is to help students find the necessary resources to pay for school.
When the FAFSA numbers don’t reflect a student’s ability to pay, the Office of Financial Aid may offer some help.
Schools often have grants and scholarships set aside for students who face unique challenges. Asking your school for help can make a real difference.