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Is Independent Student Financial Aid the Answer?

written by: Melanie•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/2/2011

Trying to get student financial aid as an independent student can be easy or hard--but never inbetween. Learn the benefits, and the pitfalls, of being considered independent for student aid purposes and if it's the right approach for you.

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    What is an "Independent Student"?

    According to the federal government, there are seven very specific criteria for being considered independent for financial aid purposes. It doesn't matter if you've been on your own and paying your own way since you were 15. Here's what the government has to say:

    If you meet ONE of the following criteria: you are considered independent if you:

    • Are 24 years of age or older by December 31 of the year you're applying for aid.
    • Are a full orphan, ward of the court, or were a ward of the court until the age of 18.
    • Are an armed forces veteran.
    • Are a graduate or professional student, regardless of age.
    • Are married.
    • Are a parent yourself, or have legal dependents.
    • Receive special consideration from a financial aid officer who will document your status (this is a VERY rare scenario).

    ...then you can be considered independent, financially, for federal student aid consideration, and your parents' income and assets will not be taken into account for financial aid calculations.

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    What's So Great About Being Independent?

    Being an independent student means that your aid is calculated only on your income and assets. In most cases, independent students make far, far less than their parents, so in theory you should experience an increase in financial aid.

    Keep in mind, however, that the federal government still calculates a higher percentage of the student's income toward student contribution than parents' income toward family contribution. Also, if you have siblings attending college, you no longer benefit from their enrollment. If you have three kids in your family attending college, all using your parents' income for student aid basis, once you're independent you're on your own. No increase in aid will come from the additional family members enrolled in college.

    In addition, your credit history is the one used to calculate any private loans--not your parents' credit history. While most students have good credit (largely because they haven't had enough money to HAVE a credit history), if you have credit problems in your past, remember that it might affect you negatively as you go for independent student financial aid.