Independent Student Financial Aid: A Guide to Paying for School Alone

Nicolas Cesare  | 

With every passing year, college costs more than ever. With no end in sight to growing tuition and textbook prices, it’s almost impossible to conceive that a student could make their way through college without some financial support. For many people, that financial support comes from their parents, whether they’re pulling from a college savings account or they have the financial means to pay up front and in full.

Even if parents aren’t contributing directly, they can still provide a lot of indirect support. For example, they can put  their name on a Direct PLUS Loan or private student loan as a cosigner, enabling their student to get loans that would otherwise be out of reach.

So what do you do when there’s no parental support of any kind? Don’t fear — it’s possible to go to college as an independent student without ending up under a mountain of debt.

What Is an Independent Student?

In order to get the financial support that you need, you’ll first have to fill out your FAFSA as an independent student. An independent student is someone who does not have to include their parents’ financial information when filling out their FAFSA. In order to qualify as an independent student, you must meet at least one of the following requirements:

  • You must be at least 24 years old before the end of the year for which you’re applying for aid.
  • You are married.
  • You are working towards a postgraduate degree.
  • You have children of your own who receive at least half of their support from you.
  • You have some other dependents who live with you and receive at least half their support from you.
  • You have been in foster care, had both of your parents pass away, or been a ward or dependant of the court since you turned 13.
  • You are an emancipated minor or otherwise in a situation where a court has assigned you a legal guardian.
  • You are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting with the risk of becoming homeless.
  • You are an active duty member or Veteran of the U.S. armed forces.

If failed to meet any of these requirements, then you’ll have to include your parent’s financial information on your FAFSA. Otherwise, you’re qualified as an independent student!

FAFSA for Independent Students

FAFSA for independent students is more or less the same as it is for dependent students, despite one major difference. When a dependent student fills out their FAFSA, they include their parents’ financial information on it, including how much their parents typically make each year and how much they are expected to contribute to the student’s education.

As an independent student, you won’t have to include this information on your FAFSA and the amount of aid you receive will be determined with the fact that  you’re paying your own way in mind.

Do Independent Students Get More Financial Aid?

The amount of aid that a given student receives is determined by a wide number of factors including income, background, and dependency status. While independent students may sometimes receive additional support the compensate for a lack of parental support, being an independent student doesn’t always mean that you will receive the most financial aid.

Scholarships for Independent Students

Many scholarships exist to help even out the college demographic, supporting students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for an education in order to broaden the student body. Since scholarships usually exist at the state or school level, you should contact your university’s financial aid office and describe your situation as an independent student to them. They will be in the best position to help you find the best independent student scholarships for you.

Student Loans for Independent Students

Although scholarships can be a powerful form of financial aid for independent students, they aren’t always reliable. Most of the time scholarships will only cover a portion of your educational expenses. They may also change from year to year, giving your more or less support than you’ve received in the past.

Like many students, your bread and butter as an independent student will probably be student loans. Student loans get a bad rap these days and some of it is deserved. However, with good financial habits, there’s no reason why you can’t pay off your student loans after graduation. As an independent student, you’re going to have more trouble getting loans that require a cosigner, but there are still plenty of student loans that you can get without a cosigner.

If you’re living life on your own for a variety of reasons, then there’s a good chance that you qualify as an independent student. Fill out your FAFSA as an independent student to make sure that you get the financial aid that you deserve.

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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.

This post was updated February 13, 2018. It was originally published January 25, 2018.