Independent vs Dependent Student: Which One Are You?

By Jacqueline DeMarco · August 01, 2023 · 5 minute read

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Independent vs Dependent Student: Which One Are You?

When a student fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form, it’s important that they understand their dependency status. A student’s dependency status will affect the information they need to report on their FAFSA.

Dependent students have to report both their own and their parent’s information during this process. Independent students will only have to report their own information, the exception being if they are married. In which case, they will provide their spouse’s information as well.

Here’s how it works for independent vs. dependent students.

The Difference Between Independent and Dependent Students

There are a few key differences between independent and dependent students.

What Is an Independent Student?

An independent student meets one or more of the following criteria. They are:

•   24 years old or older
•   Married
•   A graduate or professional student
•   A veteran
•   A member of the armed forces
•   An orphan
•   A ward of the court
•   Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse
•   An emancipated minor
•   Someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

What Is a Dependent Student?

Basically, a dependent student is any student who doesn’t meet the criteria to be considered an independent student. The U.S. government bases their federal student aid programs on the belief that it is primarily the student and their family’s responsibility to pay for the student’s higher education pursuits.

Even though it may not be the case in reality, dependent students are assumed to have the support of their parents which is why the parents’ information must be included in the student’s FAFSA form. Providing this information gives FAFSA a more complete picture of the family’s financial strength.

Just because someone is considered a dependent student does not mean that their parents have to contribute financially to their higher education costs, but the government assumes that parents will contribute in some way if financially possible.

Determining Dependent or Independent Student Status

While that brief overview begins to paint a picture of what it looks like to be a dependent or independent student, the Federal Student Aid office, which is an office of the U.S. Department of Education, asks key questions that help students determine their official status.

Their answers to the questions on the FAFSA form will help determine whether they are considered a dependent or independent student. The questions do change slightly each year, but are published by the Federal Student Aid office.

These questions include things like:

•   As of today, are you married?
•   Are you a veteran of the US armed forces?
•   At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?

These questions can help guide students to determine whether or not they qualify as an independent or dependent student. Essentially, if a student answers “yes” to any of the questions in the FAFSA, they are considered an independent student.

Dependent Students

Students that answered “no” to all of the questions above are considered to be dependent students and while applying for federal student aid must provide information about their parents on the FAFSA form.

Students who are considered a dependent student by the FAFSA but are not in contact with their parents and don’t know where they live, can discuss their situation with the financial aid office at the college or career school they are planning on attending.

Their school’s financial aid administrator will usually be able to help them determine next steps. The same process applies if a student has left home due to an abusive situation. They will fill out the FAFSA form and contact their school’s financial aid office for assistance.

Even if a dependent student doesn’t live with their parents, they still need to provide accurate information about their parents. If their parents won’t provide the information they need, the student risks having their application rejected which may make them ineligible to receive any federal student aid.

Students in these circumstances may be able to qualify for an unsubsidized loan at most, but this option depends on what the financial aid office at their specific college decides.

Even if a student’s parents won’t help pay for college, if they answered “no” to all of those questions, they are still considered dependent.

Independent Students

Students that answered “yes” to any of the above questions are considered to be independent students during the federal student aid process. Independent students do not have to provide information about their parents on the FAFSA form.

When Federal Student Aid Falls Short

Colleges use the FAFSA to determine a student’s federal aid eligibility. While the FAFSA is a great place to start, sometimes federal aid can’t fully cover the cost of a college education. This is where private student loans can step in and cover the expenses that gift aid and Federal loans could not.

Related: A Guide to Private Student Loans

SoFi strongly believes students should exhaust all of their Federal grant and loan options before they look at private loans. Once a student has exhausted their options, they can look at SoFi private student loans which are easy to apply for, allow students to add a cosigner to their application in minutes, and never have fees.

No origination fees, no late fees, and no insufficient fund fees. Ever. With flexible repayment plans and exclusive rate discounts, SoFi Private Student Loans can provide a good option for covering the costs of attending college.

The Takeaway

In order to fill out the FAFSA, students will need to determine if they are an independent or dependent student. For example, students aged 24 and older, those attending graduate school, students who are married, or who have dependents are all generally considered independent students.

For a full list of questions to help you determine whether or not you are a dependent student, check out this resource from the Federal Student Aid website.

The distinction between independent and dependent students is important because they are required to submit different information to the FAFSA. Dependent students are required to submit their parent’s information in order to be considered for federal aid opportunities. This is the case even if a dependent student’s parents are not contributing financially to tuition costs. Independent students are not required to submit any of their parent’s financial information.

In situations where federal aid may not cover the cost of college, private student loans could be an alternative option to look into.

Learn more about SoFi’s competitive student loan rates.

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