Update Your Dependency Status to Qualify for More Financial Aid
Guest writer Jonna Mastropasqua has ten years experience in Financial Aid administration. She received her M.A. in Women’s Studies from the University of Arizona in 2006. She has been both a financial aid counselor, as well as the Director of the UofA’s LGBTQ Student Resource Center. Now a resident of North Carolina, Jonna enjoys gardening and spending time with her dogs. These are her words . . .
Federal law has set up a list of conditions that, once any single one is met, change a student’s classification (for Federal Aid purposes) from Dependent Student to Independent Student. The difference between the two classifications is important, as it can have a dramatic impact on your eligibility for financial aid.
Unless you are 24, married, have kids of your own, or you are active duty military or you are a veteran, generally you are considered a Dependent Student. This means you are required to report parental income, asset and household information on the FAFSA. These are the rules, and they are determined by Congress and not by your local Financial Aid Administrator (FAA). However, the FAA does have a small amount of power to make what is called a Professional Judgment (PJ) and grant you a Dependency Override. Basically, the FAA must determine (and document) that there is a compelling reason why your parents should not be expected to contribute to the cost of your education.
Federal law says that PJs must be done on a case by case basis. This means that you have the right to petition your FAA for a Dependency Override and they must make a decision as to whether or not they will grant it. It is NOT automatic. The case by case basis requirement also means that each school sets its own policies regarding PJ decisions—some schools are more willing to grant them than others and the requirements for documentation, etc. vary widely from school to school.
Keep in mind that federal law is fairly specific about which cases do not qualify. Basically, your ability to support yourself alone is not sufficient for a dependency override, whether you do or do not. Your parent’s unwillingness to help you with school, by itself, is not sufficient for a dependency override. Many schools require that you prove that you have been abused, neglected or abandoned in order to qualify. That is, if your parents think the guy you are dating is a turkey and they have suspended your allowance, well, you’re probably out of luck. But if your parents found out that you are bisexual and left your clothes on the lawn when you were 14, you probably have a better case. A strained relationship can be enough, but you want to be as open and honest as possible with the FAA so that they understand your situation. Some schools go as far as to require that you have absolutely NO contact with your parents for one year prior to granting a dependency override.
In general, though, there are some things you can do to make the process smoother and to make your case compelling enough that it gets approved.
1. Ask your school to provide you with any necessary forms as well as a list of required documentation that you will need. These forms are their policy in a nutshell and will give you a good idea whether or not you have a shot.
2. Read all of the forms and other information VERY CAREFULLY. Often just following all of the directions and submitting a complete request will move things through much faster and increase your chances of getting your request approved.
3. Find out who reviews the forms and who makes the final decision. Some schools do it by committee, some schools have individual FA counselors review them, and at some schools all PJ decisions are made by the Director or head of the financial aid office. If it is done by an individual counselor and you have a choice over which one you see (most schools have more than one), see if you can get a feel for the level of LGBT friendliness for each and hedge your bets. Many of the counselors at the University where I used to work proudly displayed their “Safe Zone” signs and some would grant overrides much more easily than some others would.
4. Most schools will ask you to write a statement that explains your situation and why you should be granted a Dependency Override. Be as detailed as possible with your information—type it so that it is readable and attach additional sheets if needed—tell as much of your story as possible. Generally, “my mom won’t give me her tax info” is not sufficient. However, “My mom threw me out of the house when I was seventeen and I have been living on my own since then. We haven’t had any contact since April of last year,” is a much better start.
5. Document, document, document.
a. If possible, provide statements or information from counselors, social workers, clergy or other people in professional positions that can attest to the fact that your parents are not helping you IN ANY WAY.
b. Be prepared to show copies of your lease agreement, your federal tax forms and any other documents the school asks for, to show that you can and do support yourself, without any assistance from your parents.
c. Statements from counselors (even your HS counselor) or teachers or other professionals that know your situation and will state that your relationship with your parents is nonexistent or strained will go a long way toward approval of your request.
d. If there have been any domestic violence or other issues between you and your parents, police reports, restraining orders or other documentation can be helpful, too.
Like just about every other aspect of applying for Federal Financial Aid, Dependency Overrides are not simple, nor are they necessarily easy to get. But it doesn’t cost you anything to try. You may have to spend a couple of hours in the Financial Aid Office or organizing paperwork and gathering documents, but the result can be a good one—a big chunk of your tuition paid or other assistance that will help keep the budget under control. Just remember that it is up to you to make your case. Be thorough and ask questions. You might be surprised how easy it turns out to be.