Grad Students: Kiss Your Parents Goodbye

Ashley’s off to grad school and is afraid her parents’ high incomes will hurt her when it comes to financial aid. She’s even thinking maybe they should divorce to make them look poorer on paper.

Hold your horses, Ashley! There’s an easier solution which allows for, among other things, Mom and Dad to stay hitched.

Hi Josh,

This is my second time emailing you, but this time I feel like I have a question that has yet to be addressed. I really enjoy your advice for entering college students, but I think us exiting students (and potential graduate students) need some help as well!

You're walking alone now, Ashley. Just like Precious. Hopefully with no other similarities.

I agree! And just a teaser here — this site is currently being rolled together with my resume advice site and will be re-launched with a new name within a month or so. Stay tuned!

I’m a senior in college at the moment, looking forward to graduate school for an AuD and a PhD, which means I need to get serious about finances.

Indeed. Two doctorates? That’s gonna run ya.

Both of my parents work, and their combined income is too much for me to claim federal aid. Unfortunately, a good majority of that income goes to medical bills (despite excellent health insurance), so my parents can’t help out much. As a result, I have over $45,000 in Parent Plus loans accruing interest, and I haven’t even started my 7-year graduate program.

In the process of discussing graduate school, my mom suggested I look into the pros and cons of declaring independent status. (I had suggested they divorce and my mom take custody since she works only part-time, but my dad said that’s fraud and I’m 21 anyway.)

Let me stop you right there. If you’re a grad student, you’re automatically considered independent. Doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 54, doesn’t matter if your parents are married, divorced, etc. Once you’re out of undergrad and into grad school, you’re an independent student as far as federal financial aid is concerned.

I work, but I only make maybe $5,000/year because I can’t work much during the semesters, so I would definitely qualify for some sort of aid. But I have a lot of questions (and can’t get anyone to answer them!):

Yes, you should qualify for a lot of aid if that’s the case, especially now that you won’t be reporting your parents’ income.

1. How little money must I receive from my parents in order to declare independent status? As it is, I receive only assistance for fuel and a small ‘allowance’ each month.

Again, you’re already an independent once you’re in grad school. Mom and Dad can bring you two gold bars wrapped in $100 bills every morning if they want to — you’re still an independent.

2. Am burdened with trying to find my own health insurance plan if I am not a dependent or can I still be covered under their plan?

That depends on the health plan — ask yours. There are definitely situations where you can still stay on your parents’ health insurance into adulthood. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher is in grad school in Nebraska right now, and she’s still on her parents’ plan. She’s 22, I think, maybe 23.

3. How would declaring independent status affect my Parent Plus loans? Would I still be able to take out loans that way?

Well, just to drive the point home, there’s no declaration that’s gonna happen — you’re an independent from this point on. Your parents can’t get PLUS loans anymore — those are only for dependent students.

Now, having said that, the amount of student loans you’re allowed to take yourself greatly increases when you’re in grad school. You’re allowed an annual maximum of $20,500 per year — $8,500 subsidized and $12,000 unsubsidized, up to a whopping lifetime total of $138,500 ($65,500 subsidized, $73k unsubsidized). If you’re in med school, that ceiling jumps to $224k.

At this point, anything helps. I look forward to your reply!

There you have it. Hope it was at least minimally helpful.

What about you grad-school bound chappies out there? Got anything to add on the subject? Let us know in the comments below.

33 thoughts on “Grad Students: Kiss Your Parents Goodbye”

  1. Thanks for answering my question, Josh! Between asking it and your answer, I discovered the auto-independent rule on my own, but I’m still left wondering… with $5,000/year as my salary and no other significant factors for the Subsidized Stafford loan (no child support, minimal assets, very few write-offs), can I expect to get the maximum?

    I asked my financial aid office if they knew how much I could make and she basically said, “It’s complicated.” Well, I know it is, but I represent possibly the most simple case!

    I also talked to my HR representative and she said that things are very much up in the air right now, thanks to Obama. We’re supposed to know the final result sometime late this year. I suspect it’s probably a similar situation for most employers right now. Gotta love the waiting game!

    Like my dad said today, “Can’t time just hurry up so you can be in grad school already?”
    I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. Diana Watkins

    She suggested her parents get divorced? What? I know I don’t know the whole story there, based on the letter, but that sounds super selfish. Who suggests their parents divorce so they can get more money for school? (and I’m asking that rhetorically)

  3. You have to be careful about the school’s rules though. I am in grad school right now and even though I would technically be considered independent, my school still requires me to include my parent’s information to be considered for “campus based aid” (which is anything other than student loans). Check with your financial aid office and see what their rules are. Good luck to you in grad school! 🙂

  4. Diana,
    My sense of humor is clearly more dry than you’re used to. My parents have a happy marriage and I’m very lucky to come from a 2-parent, first-marriage, unbroken household. I don’t take that for granted.

    The divorce suggestion was facetious.

  5. Thanks for answering this one Josh!

    I have been so worried about my daughter being able to get funding for grad school!!!! We have given her all we can for college (being that her father and I are both out of work at this time) and can hopefully finish off Senior year before running out of retirement investment money.

    Now I know that she will be able to go, even if it’s on loans alone, and I don’t have to feel guilty about not being able to help pay for her post grad education.

  6. Ashley,

    I’m in just about the same situation as you: earn $4000 a year, lots of medical bills, etc. I was able to get the maximum amount of financial aid each year, but I don’t know if that differs according to school, state, etc. You might also want to look into grants. I know that’s what I’m planning to do, but I just don’t really know where to look…

    Best of luck with your studies and finances.


  7. Ashley,

    I got myself considered an independent for undergrad (I married young), and had an income only slightly higher than yours. I qualified for, if not the maximum amount of financial aid, extremely close. The ceilings may be different for grad school, but I’d suspect not by much.

    In other musings – hats off to you for going for two doctorates! Judge Josh seems to have a slightly anti-stratoshpherically-high-education bias (which, from a purely financial perspective, probably makes sense), but as someone whose original major was going to be Classical Greek, grand Poo-Bah of useless but fascinating subjects, I have a huge respect for anyone who takes the higher-education bull by the horns and just goes for it

  8. Thanks, Kimberly! That’s good information.

    As far as the grants… maybe that’s something Josh could help out with!
    Other than that, you might check those huge books at the library with scholarships and grants put together, or maybe Fastweb? I do know grants are a little tougher to find (applicable ones, anyway) than scholarships.

    Best of luck to you as well!

    PS. For those of you still wanting to flame me for being selfish, please consider that regardless of my comment being GROSSLY MISINTERPRETED as a serious statement of self-interest, marriage and divorce (aside from the medical element) are just pieces of paper.

  9. She seriously suggested her parents divorce? At the risk of being disrespectful, the fact that that was suggested makes me think there are bigger problems than her financial needs needing to be addressed–though not by this site or Judge Josh.

    I do appreciate the info on independent status, though, and look forward to more graduate student questions being answered in the future!

  10. My suggestion is to look into fellowships and teaching assistant-ships that are available through your schools. Most graduate schools have funding. I’m joining a PhD program that has waived tuition, given be a 15,000 per year stipend and a 4,000 per year fellowship — for the next six years. So do the research look for research assistant-ships, and fellowships — apply for everything your school can offer.

  11. She was kidding about the divorce. This is the first time I have ever commented, despite reading almost every answer (thanks to the fact that they pop up in my email). If you people are so stupid that you don’t realise it was a joke, you shouldn’t be reading this site anyway, because clearly you’re not smart enough for university!

  12. I personally don’t blame her for having such a thought as getting a divorce to get loans. It is a piece of paper. People do it all the time and still livve in the same apartment. In fact, I thought of the same thing as Ashley two years ago. and thankfully for having such a great financial aid counselor at my medical school, I understood that I’m independent now. :))

  13. “Judge Josh seems to have a slightly anti-stratoshpherically-high-education bias (which, from a purely financial perspective, probably makes sense), but as someone whose original major was going to be Classical Greek, grand Poo-Bah of useless but fascinating subjects, I have a huge respect for anyone who takes the higher-education bull by the horns and just goes for it.”

    Wow! Quite the undertaking. Yes, I have noticed that Josh leans that way, but although I am a pragmatist at heart, I will not be happy if I do not pursue my dream job: audiology research. The realist in me is why I’m getting my AuD (a clinical degree) as well, so I can be an audiologist… always have a fall-back plan! (Thanks, Baby Boomers!)

    It’s good (and bad) to hear that I am not the only one in this financial purgatory. I wish there were “What To Expect When You’re Expecting… To Go To Grad School” classes at my school. I would attend for sure!

  14. Ashley,

    In terms of health insurance there really is not much up in the air at this point…insurers absolutely have to insure children under their parent’s health insurance until the children are over 26, with very specific, rare exceptions. Check out for more information. Your HR rep is either misinformed or giving you inaccurate information.

  15. As someone that is currently in an extremely costly graduate program at a private school right now, I can say that the maximum is more than that per year.

  16. re: health insurance – schools usually have a program and they’ll insist that you buy into it unless you have similar coverage elsewhere. It’s usually around $1000/year, at least that’s what it is for me and my son’s school also has a similar price tag – if you can still be on your parent’s plan, it’s probably cheaper. As a medical student, I’m going to school with people who take out up to $400K in loans (including PLUS loans) – the financial aid counselor was practically in tears about this. I’m a little older, and did the math – I’ll pay back about $2 for every $1 I borrow. So I am keeping myself on a very lean budget. I suggest you stay away from PLUS loans as much as possible, and try for those grants, fellowships and teaching positions others are suggesting. . .

  17. If you’re applying to college for a graduate program, generally speaking the departments somewhat support (if not fully support) their graduate students. Have you looked into what kind of perks you might be in for? I think there are also grants out there that you might want to grab at. Good luck!

  18. Definitely check into assistantships, fellowships, etc. My hubby gets a 2/3 reduction in tuition and a $700/month stipend to work as a graduate research assistant in his department. We always explore the non-loan possibilities first before even considering loans.

  19. Hey Ashley and Josh,

    Great post! I am in the same boat as you Ashley – I’m hoping to … “advocate” my way into law school, and the potential professional school debt is daunting. Although my father is the only person working, he makes a sufficient income that makes me ineligible for provincial aid (I’m in Ontario, Canada). Despite what is deemed to be “sufficient” income, I have two young brothers which my parent definitely need to save up for (especially being in their early 50s, and my youngest brother is 14), and money isn’t flowing to me so easily as I prepare to tackle the potential law school debt.

    I think your question was very helpful for all middle-class families who are out of reach for government aid, but not rich enough to support their kids through graduate school. As of course, Judge Josh never fails to give a great answer.


    Surviving Studenthood

  20. As for the health insurance thing, new legislation allows for students to be on their parents insurance for an extended amount of time….24? 26? I dunno…

    And, schools have a Student Health Fee if you’re so inclined to go to the school’s clinic.

  21. Samsmom, and any parent that follows this site,
    I get upset when I see posts like yours. I am a senior in college as well, and heading off to grad school; and I can’t understand people in your position. Your daughter is young, and you are not doing her any favors by covering her education. Right now, in college, she could be learning how to handle her own finances and be a responsible adult; learning how to re-distribute her time so she can balance her work, school, and social life; all of which are skills she will need for the rest of her life.

    In addition, you are older than your daughter. Can you really bounce back and retire at a reasonable age and still have enough money to do everything you want to do, if you empty your retirement funds on your daughter’s tuition? If she takes on debt now, she will have more than enough time to pay off her debt and still have enough money to save for her retirement and for her children’s education (should she choose to). Unless your daughter is in college when she is 14 (too young to work legally) you should not be handling her finances at all (and if she is 14, then she should have a full ride, and be more than capable of handling her own finances). Do both of you a favor and CUT HER OFF.

    You can’t afford to pay for her education, and in the long-run, neither can she. I know first-hand how hard it is to put yourself through school. I currently have 3 jobs in addition to the 17 credits a semester I have to take. I sleep maybe 4 hours a night, work 40+ hours a week, and spend countless hours doing homework and studying. Come break I am almost ready to burn-out; but the life lessons I have learned from this experience are priceless.

    After I started working and going to school, my mom got cancer and the medical bills were too much for my parents’ finances to handle. I am able to help them along, even though I only make $1500 a year between my 3 jobs. The money is real tight, and scholarships are the only reason I haven’t gone into debt, but I still have to advocate that students should pay for their own tuition, housing, and books. Your job was to raise your daughter so she could survive in the world as an adult, and I am sure you did that marvelously; but now it is her time to shine and show you that she can handle anything thrown her way.

    My point: it is not your job to pay for your daughter’s schooling, that is her responsibility. Please don’t feel guilty about that. Despite popular culture, not everyone can afford to pay for their child’s university, and you shouldn’t have to. I’m not saying you shouldn’t help her out if she gets in a bind, but she should see it as a favor and not something she is entitled to. Good luck, and I really hope you don’t ruin your finances to finance her life.

  22. I’m looking into grad school as well and recently emailed one of the professors from the program I’m looking into with a few questions. He mentioned that almost all of their grad students are research assistants so they get health insurance, are paid, and have tuition covered. If you’re looking to go into research, you may want to look into something like that.

  23. All the comments about research assistants and teaching grants and such are great ideas. I know that there are lots of grants available to biological sciences. Unfortunately, audiology is one of those areas that has fallen between the cracks, funding-wise.

    I was told my by top-choice program that they try to give funding to everyone they accept, but they never know if they’ll have that funding until they get their budget for the year. So I’m going in expecting to have nothing coming from the department, that way I won’t be disappointed.

  24. Hi Ashley,

    Just wanted to let you know about Grad PLUS loans. They’re similar to the Parent PLUS loans, except that the student is responsible for them. I have found, however, that the Stafford loans are more than enough (although my school may be less expensive than yours).

  25. I also find it funny that, when people reply to the article, they don’t read the comments first. As soon as she replied to my post I went, “Oh duh.” But there was not any real indication that she was being humorous, because the rest of her post was dead serious. The difficulty with writing is that no one can hear your voice. We can’t tell how you’re inflecting something, so we might apply our own spin to it. In this case, dead serious, just like the rest of your letter. Yeah, we should lighten up a little, but it’s very, very hard for humor to translate on the net at times, especially when it’s both unexpected and dry.

  26. Physical Therapy Student

    Great advise to all who have posted, aside from those who do not yet fully understand sarcasm, I have been searching for information on this topic for the past month or so now and it was dictated very clearly to me here! I greatly appreciate sites such as this, keep up the good work!

  27. hey i need help on grad schools scholarship to go abroad i stay in India!! Judge Josh do reply to my mail as well!!pleasee!!

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