How to help a high schooler apply for financial aid if their parents can’t (or won’t)
My 16-year-old niece, Janna, is whip smart and probably could get into a good college, but my brother (her dad) and his ex are a problem. Their nasty divorce took a financial toll on them, and they barely speak. I’m sure Janna would qualify for financial aid, but I can’t see either one of her tuned-out parents getting with the program. Can Janna apply for aid on her own? How can I help her?
—Beatriz, Burlington, Vt.
Every year, nearly five million students who’ve never attended college apply for undergraduate financial aid for the first time. But some applicants, like your niece, face an added stress even though they are dependents. They may have to go it alone. Maybe one or both of their parents isn’t willing to share their financial details for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the gateway to college money that should be submitted once it becomes available on Oct. 1. Or maybe a student knows that Mom and Dad can’t or won’t help pay for college, and figures she’ll file the FAFSA on her own.
Unfortunately, even when you want or need to, if you are a dependent, it’s hard to ditch the parents when it comes to the FAFSA. The government (understandably) doesn’t want students with wealthy parents to declare “independence” and qualify for financial aid, and it’s strict about this policy. Unless a student is 24 or older as of December 31 of the academic award year (e.g., December 31, 2019, for 2019–20), the federal government considers her to be a dependent of her parents, and requires that their information be included on the FAFSA—even if she’s paying all her own bills, and regardless of their financial situation. That said, your niece has some options. And since you’re obviously a caring aunt, maybe you can walk her through them.
Persuade her parents to help with the FAFSA. If Janna’s parents are fighting over money, each of them may be wary of the other seeing their income in black and white. If Janna’s custodial parent has remarried, the government requires that her live-in step-parent report his or her info on the FAFSA, another potential stumbling block. In addition, some parents don’t want their kids to know their money situation. Whatever the reasons, it’s worth having a conversation—ASAP—to try to bring them around. I suggest your niece—and you, if she’s comfortable with your stepping in—talk to her parents (separately, of course) and try to make a couple of important points. First, her parents’ financial info will be kept private. Federal law safeguards the privacy of education records, including financial aid forms. Because a student must attest that the info on the FAFSA—both hers and her parents’—is accurate, there’s no way for parents to completely shield that info from their children. But most kids aren’t interested in doing an audit of their parents’ finances. Second, filling out the FAFSA doesn’t obligate a parent to pay a dime. While it’s true that this form is used to generate what’s known as an Expected Family Contribution (EFC), this is just a number that schools use to calculate how much financial aid each student needs. It won’t generate a bill of any kind, but it could mean thousands of dollars in grants and access to cheap federal student loans.
Don’t let a language barrier intrude. This may not apply to your niece, but sometimes parents find it hard to help because of limited English skills. If one or both of a student’s parents don’t speak English, or don’t speak it well, the resulting confusion can heighten anxiety during this already stressful process. Sometimes parents who are used to their children taking the lead when it comes to matters that require English are surprised when their kid needs their help with this form. (Note that there’s a Spanish version of the FAFSA.) If language is an issue, make sure to start the FAFSA process early, with plenty of time for questions and guidance. Sometimes college counselors or teachers can put parents in touch with translators or other support staff. If undocumented parents are concerned that their immigration status will be shared with the authorities, they should know the FAFSA doesn’t ask about this. And for anxious students and parents afraid that they’ll misunderstand the form and make an error, rest assured that it’s possible to make corrections later. One mistake won’t derail the entire process.
Be declared independent. There are a few exceptions to the federal government’s requirement that students include their parents’ financial info on the FAFSA. If a student is married, has children or other dependents besides a spouse, is an orphan, has spent time in foster care, is a veteran or active-duty member of the U.S. armed forces, or satisfies a few other narrow criteria, she can qualify as independent. It seems unlikely that your niece falls into one of these categories. Only around 15% of students under age 24 do. (Note that being a dependent for the purposes of the FAFSA is different from being a dependent when she files her taxes with the IRS, so don’t confuse the two.) If a student is able to get independent status, she often qualifies for more financial aid than she would if she had to report her parents’ income. For example, a dependent student can borrow an aggregate limit of $31,000 in federal loans as an undergrad. The limit for independent students is $57,500.
Get a financial aid office override. If all else fails, your niece can request that a financial aid administrator at a college she’s applied to make an exception for her. This request is very rarely granted, however, and generally only in extreme situations, such as when a parent has been ruled by a court to be abusive, has abandoned the student, or is incarcerated. The way this works: A student fills out the FAFSA, indicates that her parents’ financial info is unavailable, and then immediately calls the financial aid office of the school she plans to attend in order to explain her situation and request an override. The FAFSA form will not be fully processed until the student sends written evidence to support the application for independent status, and the financial aid office gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That decision is final—there’s no way to appeal it. If the override isn’t granted, she may still be eligible for an unsubsidized student loan to help pay college expenses. This isn’t as good as a grant or work-study—or even a subsidized loan, which won’t accrue interest while a student is in school—but it’s better than nothing. Otherwise, a student can wait until she turns 24, and then fill out the FAFSA as an independent. But hopefully it won’t come to that. What Janna does have going for her is a savvy, caring aunt. Hopefully, together you can persuade her parents to set aside their differences and cooperate for the sake of their daughter’s future.