Before filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, applicants must first determine their dependency status – which dictates whose information needs to be submitted on the form.
An undergraduate student can’t simply choose to file as an independent on the FAFSA, the application that most schools use to determine financial aid awards. They must meet certain legal requirements to file independently. For instance, undergraduates born before Jan. 1, 2001 who complete the 2024-2025 FAFSA are considered independent for federal financial aid purposes.
However, there are other circumstances – outside of age – that can give a student independent status. Here’s what students should know about how to declare themselves independent during the college financial aid process.
How to File the FAFSA as an Independent Student
For the most part, the FAFSA relies on parental information — unless the student is applying for graduate school.
Undergraduate program applicants who are under the age of 24 by Dec. 31 of the award year are typically considered dependent and must go through a complicated process to prove independence for financial assistance.
What Is an Independent Student?
An independent student meets certain legal requirements to receive federal financial aid to pay for college based on the student’s ability to pay. A dependent student’s ability to pay, by contrast, is determined by reviewing information provided by both the student and one or both parents.
To be considered independent on the FAFSA without meeting the age requirement, an associate or bachelor’s degree student must be at least one of the following: married; a U.S. veteran; in active duty military service other than training purposes; an emancipated minor; a recently homeless youth or self-supporting and at risk for homelessness; a parent who provides more than half of the financial support for a child who lives with him or her; or someone who has been in foster care, been an orphan or a dependent or ward of the court for any period of time after the age of 13.
Most undergraduates who qualify for independent status do so because they are married, according to financial aid experts.
But college populations are changing to include more independent and other nontraditional students. According to data from the Lumina Foundation, 37% of college students are 25 or older, while 49% are financially independent from their parents.
Dependency Status Override
Student self-sufficiency is not enough for financial aid administrators to grant a dependency override, an administrative ruling that treats the student as independent.
Financial aid officers say it’s rare for a college to grant a dependency override, usually only in a “dire circumstance” such as a student who may have recently been granted a divorce, who comes from an abusive home or whose parents are incarcerated.
“Students must provide documentation to support their request for the override, such as documents from third party agencies (such as social service agencies) and evidence that they have had a breach and are living away from parents,” James Anderson, director of financial aid at Montclair State University in New Jersey, wrote in an email.
Those who consider themselves independent because of parental refusal to fill out the FAFSA don’t qualify. The guidelines say that a parent’s refusal to provide information for the FAFSA, or a student’s self-sufficiency, isn’t enough to warrant a dependency override.
“Parents have to understand they are being considered,” says Julie Gross, owner of College Financial Consultants, a private consulting firm. “The federal government does not see it as they are not responsible for their student’s education. The federal government sees it very differently. I don’t know that there are schools that are going to make an exception for that.”