When dependent students apply for financial aid whether through the FAFSA or CSS Profile, they will have to provide parental information as part of the process. Some questions can come to mind. What students are independent? When are they considered dependent? Who are the “parents”? What happens in situations like divorce, unmarried partners, etc.? With so many family situations and two different types of financial aid applications with different requirements, it can get confusing.
When is a student independent?
Under the FAFSA, an independent student does not have to report their parents’ financial information on financial aid applications. (CSS Profile institutions may ask for parental info.) Whether or not a student is independent does not rely on whether or not a parent claims that student on their tax returns.
The FAFSA has a checklist of questions to determine if a student is independent including if the student:
If the student answered “yes” to any of these, that student is independent for federal financial aid purposes.
Sometimes students need a dependency override.
In situations where students don’t know where their parents are, or they have been abused and removed from the home, or the parent is incarcerated, students can request that the college’s financial aid office provide them with an override. Higher education institutions have been given the authority to declare a student independent although only 2% of undergrad students have been granted this override.
If declared independent, students don’t need to provide financial information on those absent parents. The override process is cumbersome, and paperwork to prove the student’s situation will be necessary. When completing the FAFSA, the student indicates that their parent’s financial information is not available. The FAFSA submission will be marked as incomplete, and the student must reach out to the college about it.
When a student is dependent, what parental information needs to be reported?
Parents can come in many forms. “Mom” and “Dad” might be biological, adopted, foster, or legal guardians. Parents can be unmarried, same-sex, or deceased. A student might have a mom, dad, stepmom, and/or stepdad. Families consist of lots of options. Understanding whose financial information to report is important. You don’t want to over-report or neglect something!
The FAFSA and the CSS Profile have slightly different considerations regarding parents and what information to include.
Let’s start with the FAFSA first.
On the FAFSA, “parent” means the legal (biological or adopted) parent or stepparent. It can also be the person determined by the state to be the student’s legal parent. Not all parents are included on the FAFSA though.
The following people are NOT considered parents for financial aid purposes (unless they have adopted the student): grandparents, widowed stepparent, foster parents, legal guardians, aunts or uncles, older brothers, or sisters.
Note: When the FAFSA asks about the education of a student’s parents, they are seeking info about the biological or adopted parents–not any stepparents.
In the event a parent refuses to provide financial information, a process exists for the student to follow. That process can be found here.
How does the CSS Profile approach parental information?
When the biological parents are divorced or separated, the CSS Profile uses a different approach than the FAFSA, and it can vary by the university. When parents are divorced or separated, colleges may request the financial information of both parents, no matter who the custodial parent is. The list of colleges and whether or not they want the financial information of non-custodial parents can be found here. The two parents access the application separately to complete it. The instructions can be found here. If a student does not have any contact with the non-custodial parent, they can request a waiver.
In general, the questions on both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile will step a student through the process of reporting the correct information. However, families come in many different varieties, and students want to make sure they are not reporting more than they need to on their financial aid application.
How should you get started?
Understanding what the sticker-price of colleges on your student’s “to apply” list is the first step in the conversation. With our college planning tool, you can develop a clear list with associated costs, search for scholarships, get a better understanding of financial aid, and engage with our experts to ask questions about applying for financial aid as a parent or student.
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