Few people know what it means to be an “independent student” at a college or university. If you do, you likely understand how difficult it can be—from both a procedural and a personal standpoint.
When I applied for independence, I had no knowledge on what to do, and because the process lasted so long, I was constantly worried about the outcome. In the end, I achieved my financial aid independence. If you think you may need to do the same, here are a few things I learned during the process that could help you.
Know Who Qualifies (And Why)
To get federal financial aid for college, all students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Dependent students must provide their parents’ financial information on this form. Independent students provide only their own information, and they can receive more financial aid because they lack financial support from their parents or family. To determine whether you qualify as an independent student, check out the reasons on the federal student aid website.
If you’re like me, you’ll likely seek independence because of an inability to provide parental information on your FAFSA. In this case, consider doing what I did: becoming an emancipated minor. This won’t make sense for everyone. But for me, it seemed like a logical step because I was already on my own long before I needed to apply for college and had a substantial amount of documentation for it. I also had the support of various teachers and school officials. If you are in a similar position, talk to the guidance counselors at your school about this option.
To start the overall process, ask your financial aid office about their protocol on applying for independence. Also, if you don’t fall into any of the standard categories for independent students, you may ask them for a “dependency override” if you’re dealing with an unusual situation.
Once you have figured out which criteria you meet, it is important to start gathering your paperwork. This means any and every piece of documentation you can find to support your case as to why you need to be considered an independent student.
For my situation, this included letters from guidance counselors and teachers vouching for me, letters from courts or agencies I’ve been a part of, and receipts and/or hospital records. Collect pretty much anything that shows concrete proof of what you are asking the financial aid office at your school to take into consideration.
Be prepared to make calls to the financial aid office to stay on top of your application. They may request several documents from you. In my case, these requests came long after I submitted my application. The process of granting independence can take several weeks on its own, so the last thing you want to do is to slow it down.
Keep in mind that these things are hard and take time. It’s hard not to worry about your financial situation for college, but it’s equally important to keep your emotional health in check. Remember to take time out for yourself and to confide in someone so that you are not alone during the process. I leaned heavily on my support system during this time.
Being granted independence for college is something that’s rarely talked about. I wouldn’t have known about this option if not for my financial aid adviser at my high school who pushed me to apply for independence after reviewing my award packages. I hope I was able to provide some clarity for at least one student who may have to go through this.
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