When it comes to federal financial aid, however, the word "independent" is used a little differently.

Most of us spend our entire childhood dreaming about the day we'll be independent. No rules, no parents making the decisions, and all the freedom in the world! Eighteen is seen as the golden year of independence. When it comes to federal financial aid, however, the word "independent" is used a little differently.

Independent status vs. dependent status
Your Expected Family Contribution (the amount you'll have to put toward your education) is directly affected by whether or not you're the only one paying for it. Independent students don't have to factor in a family contribution when requesting federal student aid — only a personal one — so their awards are generally greater in dollar value. Sounds great, right? Who wouldn't want to be independent? Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as it sounds.

The federal government sets very strict guidelines defining independence for the purposes of allocating federal student aid. Why? The basic assumption of the Federal Methodology, used to calculate need, is that it's the responsibility of a student — and their family — to contribute toward college costs as much as possible. If every student could claim themselves an independent, then every family would be off the hook.

Independent status criteria
So who is independent? Gaining independent status right out of high school is actually quite difficult. To qualify for federal financial aid purposes, you must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have a dependent
  • Be a veteran
  • Be married
  • Be at least 24 years of age
  • Be an orphan or ward of the court
  • Have obtained a bachelor's degree


Effect of status on federal student aid

Even if your status is dependent, it does not mean that you don't qualify at all for aid. You may still qualify for aid such as the federal Pell Grant, federal work study, or the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). It just means that your parents' potential contributions will be counted as part of the formula used to calculate financial need.