Claiming Independent On FAFSA: Can Anyone Do It?

by Judge Josh on August 26, 2010

Krista’s firmly in the financial aid dead zone. You might be there, too.

Hey Josh, thanks for your blog! It has been the MOST helpful resource I’ve found.

Thanks! I mean, you’re welcome!

I am currently a senior in high school, and taking 2 classes at the local community college for dual credit. I want to be a mechanical engineer, and I’ve got it all worked out as far as where to go and all that. The thing I’m concerned about is paying for it.

That’s always the biggest part of getting it all worked out, for sure. :)

My dad works on commission basically, and when the economy was doing wonderful, things were great, and we were living well, putting money in savings, all that good stuff. Well, now that the economy is in a slump, we’re paying our bills, but that’s about it.

I feel for you. And I’m glad you wrote, because while some situations I write about here are very unique, this one is something that many thousands of your fellow readers are experiencing along with you.

He makes too much for me to qualify for need based financial aid, even though we’re barely scooting along because of the drastic change in income and lots of debt from a divorce, we don’t have extra money for college.

This is a textbook situation (no pun intended) for student loans, I’m afraid. And although I don’t recommend tons of unnecessary student loans in any situation, this is one case where it’s good that they’re around, because it sounds like without them, you wouldn’t be able to go to college.

claiming independent on fafsa

The government says you can't be Miss Independent, Krista. But girrrrrrl...Ne-Yo has other ideas.

I’ve been looking into things, and I was curious, if I claim myself as independent on taxes this April (I am currently employed and will be 18 before April), would I be any better off getting financial aid? My annual income is only 10k, so if this works, I’d qualify for need based assistance. I’m just not sure if being declared “independent” is enough to qualify, or if they’d still look at my dad’s income and say no.

Unfortunately, that’s what would happen. Your tax return aside, you can’t just declare yourself independent, unfortunately. Regardless of your parents’ financial situation — even when it’s a deceptive one on paper, like yours, where it seems like your dad should have more money to pay than he really does — you’re still a dependent student in the government’s eyes.

In your particular case, as a 17-year-old, you’re pretty much screwed as far as becoming an “independent” student anytime soon. You’d have to get married or have a kid before you started school. (I’ve done both, and I advise neither — not on this kinda short notice, anyway. :)

I may be moving out this upcoming summer (rent is considerably cheaper than driving the 25 miles to drive across town and pay for parking daily, especially if I were to have a room mate), but again, I have no idea if that’s going to make a difference.


Yeah, you can’t become an independent student, unfortunately, so you’re going to have to figure out your situation knowing that Dad’s income will be determining your fate.

Now, on to some details. Since you’re going to have to pay some out-of-pocket costs (with cash or student loans), you want to try and minimize as many of those costs as you possibly can.

My usual recommendation? Community college for the first two years of school. Even mechanical engineers have to take a lot of basic courses the first couple of years, so doing them at a community college can save you tons of money.

After those two years, perhaps your dad’s financial situation will be more accurately reflected in your FAFSA and you’ll get more aid. Or, better yet, maybe he and the economy will have recovered a bit and he’ll be making bank and you won’t have these money issues.

— What about you guys — any advice for Krista? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Olivia August 26, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Sorry to hear about your situation, FASFA did a similar thing to me and my folks. However, I’ve been able to pay for school through scholarships – something you can do as well, especially since you want to pursue mechanical engineering! Since you’re a girl, you’re considered a minority when it comes to the STEM fields. I’d highly recommend applying for NASA’s MUST (Motivating undergraduates in science and technology) program – it gives a scholarship (half of your school tuition, up to $10,000) and a paid ($5000) summer internship at a nasa center! I’m a part of the program and love it! Just continually search the internet for scholarships for women in engineering – there are quite a few. Check out SWE and the national society for mechanical engineers and just start searching!

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Christopher Johnston August 26, 2010 at 2:56 pm

The bonus to attending community college, especially for a ME major, is less competition in your physics and math classes. This will help boost your GPA and give you a better chance at scholarships when transferring to a 4-year school. It also helps keep that GPA up when you enter your harder ME classes in your senior year.

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USMC August 26, 2010 at 3:26 pm

My son’s girlfriend was in the same situation. She moved in with my wife, myself and my son (her boyfriend) from Colorado. She was facing out-of-state tuition with no Financial Aid other than student loans. In her situation, my wife and I had a long talk with my son and explained to him that if he wants to take on this responsibility, he must be willing to help her the first year since it would expensive. He decided to take on the responsibility and help her pay for her first year. Then when they entered their second year, her parents income dropped dramatically due to the economy. She had to file for in-state tuition as an independent student. However, this was a very difficult process since the law requires that as an independent student you must fall into specific categories such as a homeless child, a victim of parental abuse, married, with a child or you file for emancipation. Filing for emancipation is not as easy as one may think. In her case, she had to show that she was self-supporting for the previous year, had a rental or lease agreement, having an income during the summer (this to show she is not going home to live with parents), living continuously within the State, having a State Driver’s License, registered voter, basically showing she plans on living in the state, having her parents financial income taxes, and her parent’s agreement to emancipate her by filling out a detailed questionnaire along with supporting documentation. It took her a full year to accomplish this and she was approved for in-state tuition as an independent student. It was difficult but the process can be done if you know what the school’s policy is on documentation to declare oneself as an independent student. However, this can only be done on your second year of college and nearly impossible as a freshman unless you fall into the above categories.

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ColumbiAlum August 26, 2010 at 5:11 pm

USMC covers most of what I was going to say. You must be in dire circumstances to get a dependency override. Even though my father had been mostly unemployed since I was 15, I couldn’t get aid at 18, so I went to community college. When I applied for state university, the financial situation was still the same AND my parents had a new baby, but still I didn’t qualify (my mom made maybe $35,000 and was supporting a family of 4). I worked to pay school expenses and food, I babysat everyday as a condition of living at home. I got the override at 21, but ONLY because the school nurse had a record of a visit for “domestic violence” and coworkers wrote letters stating that they’d seen me bruised after a beating and that I’d described the situation at home on several other occasions. It’s not a matter of moving out for a few months.

However, you CAN have financial aid look at the CURRENT finances, instead of the previous year. Everyone has been hit hard, so a drastic drop in income shouldn’t be a great surprise. I suggest making an appointment with a financial aid officer and discussing getting a review. I forget the formal name for this, but they can look at the current year and manually adjust the family contribution (EFC).

Good luck!

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ColumbiAlum August 26, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Olivia’s suggestions reminded me of something else: Trio programs. I was a McNair Fellow, the point of the program is to help mostly minority, low income and first generation college students to get a Ph.D. The program provides funding for research and other resources (academic tutoring, GRE fee waiver plus GRE test prep). Then, once you’re in graduate school, many participating schools give full funding (tuition and living stipend). You can sometimes get this funding for a Master’s as well. Also, most schools , even those not participating in McNair, will waive your graduate application fees.

There are other TRIO programs (even math & science specific!) you might qualify for:
http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/index.html

Believe me, I understand how difficult financial aid could be. I was told my $35k salary disqualified me from any additional financial aid (I had exhausted student loans and was awarded a $4000 scholarship), even though tuition for FT was $34-38k and my take home salary was around $24k. Somehow, financial aid formulas need to be more tied to reality. By the same token, I’ve watched expensive, private schools give huge scholarships to students who were clearly well to do and/or had parental support (especially since grad students are automatically independent). That’s money that could be going to truly needy students. There must be a better way to determine need than the present system.

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Allie August 26, 2010 at 8:34 pm

One thing she might consider, depending on how low her dad’s income is now, is filing an appeal regarding the denied financial aid. If the aid is being denied based on his previous income (which I think is how it works unless you appeal), it’s possible that now his income is low enough that she can qualify for a small amount, and every bit helps.

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Sara August 27, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Once your 24 FAFSA doesn’t collect parents info! That’s the good part.. the downer is waiting that long. But for some people it’s a great way to decide what your into. I got a full time job to help save up money and went to community college part time when I was done with high school. That way you will get your GE’s done, and if you change your mind about your major, you wouldn’t have wasted time and money on classes that do not matter for your new major.
In my case it worked out great because I wanted a business degree for years, but once I was getting ready for a university, I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I am currently getting a degree in Recreation. I am now 26 and FAFSA is paying my way through college. I don’t even have to spend money on books.
So if you don’t mind waiting, it might be great money-wise. And if your dad’s job does pick up, then don’t wait until your 24 and just start!

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Jasmine November 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm

My sister was having the same problem as Krista. She’s a couple years older, though.
The school told her if she claimed herself on her taxes, and my dad didn’t claim her on his taxes, then she would be considered independent, and financial aid would be solely based on her income.
I don’t see why Krista couldn’t do this too, unless it has something to do with her still being in high school. But maybe the year after she could do this?
Or, she could do like my sister did (after my dad refused to take her off his taxes) and run out and get married. That’s another way to have your financial aid based on only your income, but not the best way I’d say.

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Aly April 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Ask the Financial Aid Officer at your school to do a Professional Judgment. This is where you provide documentation to the school FA office to show that your father’s income has drastically changed since the prior year and the Financial Aid Officer can adjust your FAFSA so that you can get need based aid. I work in an FA office and we do this a lot in your type of situation. It won’t make you independent, but if your getting the aid you need, that shouldn’t matter. Also, dependent students can have a parent take out a PLUS loan to help cover tuition costs.
If your school won’t do one, when you reapply your sophomore year you would be using the tax info that shows your dad makes less and you may get need based aid the next year.

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Emily June 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I am in the same situation. Sometimes the financial aid office does have paperwork you can fill out for exceptional circumstances. Call the financial aid at the school you want to go to and at the community college. Because of some medical situations, paid for out of pocket, I can fill out some paperwork and send in proof, and they’ll look at the info and decide if I can get anything. Hope this helps!

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