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Dependent vs. Independent College Student: How It Affects FAFSA

Learn about the key differences between a dependent college student and independent college student in terms of financial aid and the FAFSA process.

A male student filling out a college application on a computer as he also prepares to search for financial aid options through FAFSA and must identify as either a dependent student or independent student

Almost 19 million FAFSA applications are processed annually. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is the program under which students can apply for financial aid from the federal government.

On that application, you are considered to be either a dependent college student or an independent college student. What does each one mean and how does it impact your ability to receive financial aid?

What Is a Dependent College Student?

If you are a college student dependent, this means that your primary source of financial support is your parents. Therefore, their income is used to determine whether you qualify to receive any federal monies to help pay for your college education.

For example, if you just graduated from high school and still live at home, you are likely a college student dependent. Your parents cover your room and board, pay for your food, and may even take care of other bills associated with your support. In this situation, the federal government considers you their dependent, so it is their income that will be taken into consideration when determining if you need help paying for college.

Does this mean that if you are considered a dependent college student, your parents are responsible for paying for your degree? Not at all. This is simply the definition used by the federal government so each FAFSA applicant is considered the same way. Whether they help pay for your education, in full or in part, is up to you and them.

What Is an Independent College Student?

An independent college student is someone who is primarily responsible for themselves financially. An example of this is a student who no longer lives at home, works full-time, and pays all of their own expenses. If you are 24 years old or older, you will also likely be considered an independent student—regardless of whether or not you live with your parents—based solely on your age.

If you are an independent college student, the federal government will use only your income to determine if you are eligible for any grants or loans to help pay for your education. The basic assumption is that your education is your responsibility, so only your income is used.

One benefit of being an independent college student is that your income may be less than your parents’ income. If they are in the later stages of their career, they may make a higher salary. As an independent student, this is not taken into consideration, potentially qualifying you for a higher level of financial aid.

How do you know whether you’re a college student dependent or independent, dictating whose income should be used on your FAFSA forms?

Determining Your Financial Aid Status

Certain questions on the FAFSA application are designed to help determine whether you are a dependent college student or independent college student. Some of these questions change slightly from year to year, so it is important to answer all of your FAFSA questions accurately so you know which status applies to you.

Examples of these questions include:

  • Will you be 24 or older by Jan. 2 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?
  • Are you married or separated but not divorced?
  • Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
  • Do you have dependents who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
  • Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
  • At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you may be considered an independent college student in the eyes of the federal government. This means that the income information supplied on the FAFSA application should be your own.

If you can answer no to all of these questions, you may be a dependent student. In this case, you would supply your parents’ income information on the FAFSA application since they are primarily responsible for your care.

What If Your Parents Are Divorced?

If you are considered a college student dependent and your parents are not together—whether due to never being married or being divorced or separated—you will use the income of the parent with whom you lived for a majority of the previous 12 months. If you lived with each an equal amount of time, you will use the income of the parent who provided a majority of your financial support during the last year.

Two Exceptions to Dependency Status Guidelines

There are two notable exceptions to these basic dependency guidelines. These apply to students who are seeking financial aid for law school and students who are enrolled in a health profession course.

In both of these cases, students must use their parents’ income information on the FAFSA form. If you’re unsure whether this exception applies to you, our Student Financial Services department can help you figure this out. Contact us today and we will talk about your exact situation and how it applies to your FAFSA application.

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