(The New York Times, 18 April 2010) 


The federal government expects parents to help pay for college. But plenty of students can’t get one penny from them. “At Michigan State, we see several hundred of those students every year,” says Val Meyers, associate director of its financial aid office. Some parents don’t believe they can or should contribute, or maybe they don’t like a particular college, or aren’t living together. A father might refuse to take responsibility for the education of a child from a first marriage.

And here’s a sticky wicket: an 18- year-old may be an adult in most states, but for financial aid purposes, students aren’t independent until age 24.


Try everything in your power to get your custodial parent to supply financial particulars on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“Filing the Fafsa does not obligate the parent to pay the bill,” says Samantha Veeder, director of financial aid at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., who has sat on panels on the subject. But without a parent’s financial information a student will not be eligible for need-based institutional aid — the only kind the Ivy League offers, for example — or any federal aid other than a Stafford loan ($5,500, or $7,500 for juniors and up).

If the parent can report low income, a student could see enough aid to cover the lion’s share of college costs. If not, why go to the trouble? “You don’t know that you’re not going to qualify,” Ms. Veeder says. “You could make six figures, and if you’re applying to a $50,000 college, you’re going to qualify for some aid.”


Independent students have a better shot at aid. That’s because colleges determine how much to award based on the student’s wages, not a parent’s, which almost certainly would be higher.

If you can check “yes” on any of these life scenarios, and can prove it, you should apply as an independent: over age 24; supporting a dependent; married (take note, divorced students, you automatically go back under a parent’s wing); in the military or a veteran; in foster care, a ward of the court, an orphan or homeless (or at risk of being kicked off someone’s couch with nowhere else to go).

This academic year, for the first time, verifiably homeless students and emancipated minors get independent status without having to appeal. Those who might cut the cord for financial aid reasons should consider that emancipation can take a year; that a child generally has to already be self-sufficient; and that about 20 states, New York among them, don’t even allow emancipation.


A financial aid officer can classify you as independent if there are circumstances that make it inappropriate to expect a parent to kick in cash for college. Living apart from them or supporting yourself financially is not unusual enough.

“We’re looking for documented cases of abandonment, abuse or complete dissolution of the family,” Ms. Veeder says. “If it’s just a matter of, ‘I moved out because my mom doesn’t like my boyfriend,’ or a parent who says, ‘I don’t want to pay for a $50,000 private, but I’ll send you to a state school,’ you’re not going to get an independence override.”

Proving independent status is an arduous task, requiring police and medical reports showing abuse or evidence that parents are dead, in jail or in rehab as well as letters from teachers and friends’ parents who can corroborate your story.

Ultimately, the financial aid system is not on your side if your parents simply decide to mess with your life by not filling out the Fafsa. “It puts the student in a bad position,” Ms. Meyers says. “If parents are not willing to meet their responsibilities, there are some options. But they aren’t real good ones.”

Read this article at the New York Times.