April Maguire 4 min read Financial Aid, Scholarships

Can I Apply to College as a Financial Independent?

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Why Might Students Want to Apply as Financial Independents?

 

Rising college tuition costs are driving families to pursue less traditional methods of financing their degrees. Because students in the upper income brackets may not quality for aid, some wealthier families are wondering if they can secure more funding by having students apply as independents. In other cases, some parents may not plan to contribute to college tuition, so students may wonder if they would be eligible for more aid as a financial independent. 

 

However, the fact is that the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) considers students to be dependents, even if their parents don’t intend to contribute to their tuition. Financial aid is based on a family’s ability to pay, rather than willingness.

 

Still, there are some rare situations in which students may qualify as independent borrowers. Individuals who meet this criteria don’t have to supply parent information on the FAFSA and may receive increased aid as a result. Keep reading to learn the reason why students may want to apply as financial independents and find out if the option is right for you and your family.

 

Who Qualifies as a Financial Independent?

 

When it comes to federal student aid, undergraduates who are under 24 years of age for the award year are generally viewed as dependents in the eyes of the law. However, exceptions exist for individuals who meet certain qualifications. 

 

It’s worth noting that student aid dependency status is different from income tax dependency status. In other words, students who are working and paying taxes don’t necessarily qualify to file as an independent. 

 

Wondering if you can file as a financial independent? You have a chance of achieving independent status if you meet one or more of the following qualifications:

 

  • Have a birthday before Jan. 1, 1996.
  • Are married or separated.
  • Are working on a master’s or doctorate program at the beginning of the 2019–20 school year.
  • Are serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training.
  • Are a veteran of the U.S. armed forces.
  • Have children who are currently receiving or will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020.
  • Have dependents (other than a child or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2020.
  • Lost both parents, lived in foster care, or were a dependent of the court at any time since age 13.
  • Received emancipated minor status or had a legal guardian who wasn’t a parent or stepparent. 
  • Were determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless on or after July 1, 2018

 

To summarize, the FAFSA generally considers students to be dependents unless they are married, orphaned, active duty military, or caring for dependents other than their spouses. It’s unlikely that individuals who fail to meet these requirements will be considered financially independent. 

 

Still, families have gone to great lengths to help students earn independent status. Some parents have even given up custody of their children to ensure they qualify. Along with being unethical, this practice prevents grant money from going to students who truly need it. Last year, 82,000 Illinois students eligible for the Monetary Award Program (MAP) didn’t receive funding because of program abuses. The money was available on a first come, first served basis, and wealthy families using the custody loophole had dried the funds up early. 

 

In an effort to prevent these cases, the University of Illinois and other schools now take steps to ensure students who apply as independents are truly deserving. In particular, students who have recently entered into a guardianship may be asked questions regarding who pays their bills for health insurance and cell service.

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Ways to Help Pay for College if You Don’t Qualify for Need-Based Aid

 

The good news is that families don’t have to resort to dishonest practices to pay for college. Multiple options are available for students looking to reduce tuition bills without giving up on their goals of earning a degree. Along with taking part-time jobs and work-study positions, many students opt to apply for merit-based funding. Some colleges have a reputation for providing the most desirable students with generous merit-based scholarships as an incentive to attend. This form of aid is based entirely on a student’s grades, test scores, and achievements and has nothing to do with ability to pay. 

 

High-performing students may also qualify for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship and other academic competitions. Founded in 1955, this award honors those students who earned high scores on the PSATs. The program selects semi-finalists who achieved certain test scores and invites them to submit additional application materials, such as transcripts, recommendations, and essays. Selected finalists then earn $2,500 toward their college tuition.

 

Additionally, students can apply to colleges that give out automatic scholarships based on test scores. While outside scholarship programs typically require students to submit essays and other materials, a number of schools provide automatic awards based on a student’s GPA and standardized test scores. Targeting these colleges is a good way to reduce total tuition costs with minimal effort. 

 

Not all students will qualify for scholarships and merit-based aid. If you’re struggling to make ends meet on your college tuition, you might want to consider a school that offers an income-share agreement. This new and controversial financing option allows students to borrow money directly from the university; in return, the student agrees to pay the school a percentage of their salary down the line. Because minimum payments increase as wages do, this financing method isn’t the best choice for students who have other options, as students may end up paying a significantly higher amount back.

 

Finally, families may not realize that they can negotiate their financial aid offers. If you’re unsatisfied with the initial award amount, you may be able to talk to the financial aid office and come up with a figure that works for your family. For best results, wait until shortly before the matriculation deadline to approach a college about negotiating aid. At this point in the process, many schools have funding left over to give out to students who contact them. Learn how CollegeVine helped one family secure an additional $11,000 a year in merit aid

 

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April Maguire
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.