What Is an Independent Student?
An independent student doesn't have to provide their parents' personal or financial information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Neither the government nor the schools the student applies to will consider the parents' financial resources in financial aid decisions. Only the student's financial resources will count toward the ability to pay for college.
- Being classified as a dependent or independent student matters for college financial aid.
- The vast majority of undergraduates do not qualify as independent students.
- The federal government, colleges, and universities all expect parents to contribute financially to their children's higher education.
- Under a few circumstances that demonstrate true independence or financial hardship, independent student status may apply.
Qualifying as an Independent Student
An independent student must meet at least one of the following 10 criteria:
- You are age 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you are requesting financial aid.
- You are married or separated but not divorced.
- You are pursuing a graduate or professional degree.
- You have children and provide more than half of their financial support.
- You have dependents (other than a child or spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their financial support from you.
- You are serving on active duty (not training) in the U.S. armed forces.
- You are a veteran of the U.S. armed forces.
- At any point after you turned 13, both of your parents were deceased, you were in foster care, or you were in a court's care.
- You are an emancipated minor or in a court-appointed legal guardianship.
- You are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or at risk of being homeless.
However, meeting at least one of these criteria does not mean you are automatically an independent student. You'll find the questions related to these criteria in Chapter 2, Step 3, beginning on page 30 of the Application and Verification guide section of the 2021-2022 Federal Student Aid Handbook.
Should you become an emancipated minor?
Though this might seem like an opportune loophole to get more financial aid (see criterion number 9, above), becoming an emancipated minor usually requires one of three major steps, depending on state law:
- Getting married
- Joining the military
- Getting the court's permission
Getting married and joining the military are both significant life decisions that have legal, financial, and life-and-death implications. And getting the court's permission requires that a judge find that emancipation is in the minor's best interest. None of these choices should be taken lightly.
Examples of an Independent Student
Qualifying as an independent student isn't easy, but the three examples below illustrate circumstances that would likely qualify under the 10 criteria listed earlier.
Javier grew up on the Florida coast with his mom. His dad has never been in his life, and his aunts and uncles live in Puerto Rico. During the summer when Javi was 15, his mother passed away. Since then, Javi has been living in the youth shelter at his friend's church. Javi would be considered an unaccompanied homeless youth, and the church pastor who oversees the shelter would be able to attest to his circumstances.
Kim is a sophomore in college. She is 21 and has been engaged to her high school sweetheart, TJ, for the past year. He is also 21 and a sophomore. They decide to get married during the summer between their sophomore and junior years. When they apply for financial aid for their senior years, they will be considered independent students.
Marcel and his girlfriend had a son when he was 16. His girlfriend left him and Marcel has been raising his son on his own ever since. Marcel's mom watches her grandson while Marcel finishes high school during the day and works part-time, but Marcel pays for all of his son's clothes, food, medical bills, and other needs. He also helps his mom pay the rent.
None of these things will make someone an independent student:
- Having a parent who is unwilling to contribute to the cost of college
- Having a parent who does not claim their child as a dependent on their tax return
- Not living in a parent's home or relying on them financially
For circumstances that don't fit neatly into the FAFSA's boxes, there's something called professional judgment. This is a legal standard that allows a college or university's financial aid administrator to decide that a student can be considered independent based on special circumstances even though the FAFSA definition would consider them a dependent student. Professional judgment may result in a student receiving enough aid for college when they otherwise would not. Such decisions vary by school and are final.
Financial Aid for Independent Students
The maximum amount of Federal Direct Loans a student is eligible for is partly based on dependency status. Dependent students, for example, can borrow up to $5,500 for freshman year, and their parents can borrow more in PLUS loans. Independent students aren't expected to rely on parents to help them pay for college, so they can borrow more in Federal Direct Loans. A freshman can borrow up to $9,500, for example. Dependent students whose parents are not eligible for PLUS loans may be able to borrow up to this amount as well.
Parents can borrow up to the full cost of attendance minus all other financial aid but must have acceptable credit to qualify. Thus, a student without financial assistance from a parent might still be at a disadvantage in paying for school even with the higher federal student loan limit. An independent student will need to rely more on financial aid awards from the school, income from work, or cheaper tuition.
What's the Difference Between Federal and Private Student Loans?
If you apply for financial aid when going to college, you will likely need to take out a loan to pay for at least part of your education. The two types of loans available, federal and private, are distinct.
Federal student loans and federal parent loans are funded by the federal government. Terms and conditions are set by law and include benefits (such as fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans). They do not require a credit check.
Private student loans are nonfederal loans extended by a bank, credit union, private lender, or school. Because they don't offer the benefits of federal loans, private student loans are generally more expensive. They generally do require credit checks.
If Your Parents Refuse to Help Pay for College, Can You Claim Status as an Independent Student?
No. The Department of Education specifically disallows independent student status for a student whose parents refuse to help finance their child's college education. However, there could be other factors that make it possible for you to receive independent status. These include:
- Abuse within the family
- Abandonment by parents
- Incarceration or hospitalization of parents
- Parents deemed physically or mentally incapable
- Unsuitable parents (for example, you have been removed and placed in foster care)
How Much Can I Borrow for a Student Loan?
If you are an undergraduate student, the federal government limits the amount you can borrow in Direct federal student loans to between $5,500 and $12,500 per year, depending on your year in school and student dependency status.
If you are a professional/graduate student, the annual maximum you can borrow in Direct Unsubsidized Loans is $20,500.
Parents and graduate students can also borrow up to the cost of attendance minus financial aid received in Direct PLUS Loans.
There is no limit to the amount you can borrow in private student loans other than the limit imposed by the lender based on your or your parents' creditworthiness.
The Bottom Line
Qualifying for independent student status may result in more financial aid for college. But qualifying is far more difficult than it might sound. It's not enough to have parents who refuse to provide financial support for college. Living alone and supporting oneself financially also won't classify a student as independent. This status is reserved for truly unusual and challenging circumstances that require extra financial aid from the government and the school for college to be feasible.