What if you're not the typical college student? Lots of the advice in these articles applies to you, anyway. But there are special considerations for older students, veterans, international students, children of divorced parents, and others who may find some twists and turns on the path to financial aid.
Your parents may remember a time when it was relatively easy to qualify for lots of financial aid by becoming an "independent" student. When they were college age, their parents could stop claiming them as a dependent on tax returns, give them less than $700 or so per year, no longer house them during the summer, and bingo! Schools would then no longer count the parents' income and assets when figuring the student's financial need.
No more. In the 1990s, the federal government decided that it was giving too much aid to families that had the means to pay college expenses. So it changed the rules, making it much tougher to qualify as an independent undergraduate. Today, you're considered independent only if you:
are age 24 or older
are a veteran of the armed services
are an orphan or have been a ward of the court
have a child or other dependent
are in graduate school
That leaves you in a tough spot if you're officially "dependent," but your parents can't or won't contribute to college expenses. Even if you live on your own, schools will expect your parents to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and any other required forms and will compute your expected family contribution (EFC) based on their resources. Financial aid officers have the leeway to grant an exception, but they seldom do, unless circumstances are direyour parents are incarcerated, missing, or severely abusive, for instance.
"For a student to be independent, there has to be irreparable damage to the family unit," says Pamela Fowler, director of the office of financial aid for the University of Michigan. And "that has to be fully documented by a third party," she adds.
If you think your own situation might warrant an exception, see a financial aid officer and be prepared to document your case with police records and/or written statements from social workers, guidance counselors, or clergy. If you do qualify as independent, only your income and assets will count toward the EFC, and you'll probably benefit from a hefty aid package.
What won't earn you independent status is a family rift over your choice of school or your boyfriend or girlfriend, or a parent's flat-out refusal to contribute. "The ones where there is a disagreement in the family are the ones we really can't help with," says Susan Little, director of the office of student financial aid at the University of Georgia.
Students who thus wind up with no aid and no parental support don't have it easy, and some do give up. But many students make it through college anyway by seeking merit-based aid, working long hours on top of class work, borrowing heavily, or choosing low-cost options, such as a community college for two years and then a state school.