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Your first step to getting financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — but you’ll fill it out a little differently depending on whether you’re an independent vs. dependent student.
This is because your dependency status determines if you’ll include information from both you and your parents — or yours alone.
Here’s what you need to know about independent vs. dependent students:
- What is the difference between independent and dependent students?
- When are you considered a dependent student?
- When are you considered an independent student?
- What to do if you have a special circumstance
- You can try to appeal your status
- Financing your education
What is the difference between independent and dependent students?
Your dependency status affects what information you’ll include on the FAFSA.
- If you’re a dependent student, you have to report information from both you and your parents.
- If you’re an independent student, you only have to report your own information (and your spouse’s, if you’re married).
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, independent students make up 55% of all FAFSA completions. However, that number includes both undergraduate and graduate-level students. For undergraduate college applicants alone, most students tend to be dependent.
Learn More: How to Apply for FAFSA
You’re considered a dependent student if:
For financial aid purposes, you can still be considered a dependent student if you don’t live with or receive financial support from your parents — or even if they refuse to help you with the financial aid process altogether.
If you’re filling out the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 school year, you’re considered a dependent student if the following applies:
- You were born after Jan. 1, 1997.
- You’re not married.
- You’re not working on either a master’s or doctorate degree.
- You don’t have children or dependents who receive at least half their financial support from you.
- You’re not currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces.
- You’re not a veteran.
- Your parents aren’t deceased.
- You’re not in foster care, and you’re not a ward of the court.
- You’re not an emancipated minor.
- You’re not an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless.
If you’re an undergraduate dependent student, you might qualify for either Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans. You might also be able to get private student loans to help fill any gaps.
Before you take out student loans, it’s a good idea to consider how much they could cost you over time. Find out how much you’ll owe over the life of your federal or private student loans using our student loan calculator below.
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With a $ loan, you will pay $ monthly and a total of $ in interest over the life of your loan. You will pay a total of $ over the life of the loan, assuming you're making full payments while in school.
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You’re considered an independent student if:
You’re an independent student if you meet any of the following requirements:
- You were born before Jan. 1, 1997.
- You’re married.
- You’re working toward a master’s or doctorate degree.
- You have children or dependents who receive at least half their financial support from you.
- You’re currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces.
- You’re a veteran of the U.S. armed forces.
- Since you turned 13, your parents are deceased, you were in foster care, or you were a dependent or ward of the court.
- You were an emancipated minor or someone other than a parent or stepparent had legal guardianship of you.
- On or after July 1, 2019, you were determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless.
Also keep in mind that some aid is given on a first-come, first-served basis — so it’s wise to submit the FAFSA as early as you can, especially if you have high financial need.
What to do if you have a special circumstance
There are some special circumstances that could prevent you from including your parents’ information on the FAFSA, but you might still be able to apply for student loans and other financial aid. Here are some common scenarios and what to do for each of them:
1. If you’re a U.S. citizen, but your parents are undocumented
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you qualify for all possible federal financial aid — your parents’ status doesn’t affect your eligibility. If your parents are concerned about filling out the FAFSA, you should know that the form doesn’t ask about their citizenship status at all.
If they don’t have a Social Security number, enter all zeros in those fields. Your parents won’t be able to sign the FAFSA electronically, since a valid Social Security number is needed to create an FSA ID. Instead, you can print out the completed FAFSA, sign it by hand, and mail it in.
2. If you have no contact with your parents
Even if you live with other family members or on your own because your parents kicked you out or were abusive, you still need to include your parents’ information on the FAFSA. But if that’s not an option, you can indicate on the FAFSA that a special circumstance makes getting your parents’ information impossible. You can then complete the application without it.
In this situation, you won’t get an Expected Family Contribution (how much your family is expected to contribute to your education costs) from your FAFSA. This means you’ll need to contact your school’s financial aid office, and they’ll make the final decision about your dependency status. Be prepared to submit additional information or documentation about your circumstances as well.
3. If your parents are unwilling to help you
If your parents simply won’t provide you with the necessary information, select the option on the FAFSA that says “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s).” When prompted, select the option that you can’t provide your parents’ information.
You’ll be able to submit the FAFSA, but you’ll have to contact your school’s financial aid office right away. In some cases, you might be able to qualify for unsubsidized student loans on your own, depending on what the financial aid office decides. Remember that these types of loans come with student loan limits.
- Your parents are incarcerated.
- You don’t know where your parents are and haven’t been adopted.
- You’re over 21, but not over 24 and are unaccompanied while homeless or at risk of being homeless.
You can try to appeal your status
If circumstances that would affect your dependency status change after you’ve completed the FAFSA, reach out to your school’s financial aid office as soon as possible. In some cases, you could be eligible for additional unsubsidized student loans. Or they might be able to direct you to other resources, such as private student loans.
You could qualify for a private student loan regardless of your dependency status.
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Financing your education
The difference between independent vs. dependent students plays a big role in your eligibility for financial aid. Your dependency status affects what financial aid you qualify for, including subsidized and unsubsidized student loans.
If the financial aid package offered by your school doesn’t fully cover your expenses, private student loans could help fill the gap. With Credible, you can easily compare multiple private student loan lenders after filling out just one form.
|Lender||Fixed rates from (APR)||Variable rates from (APR)|
|4.50%9 - 14.83%9||5.99%9 - 16.33%9|
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Learn More: Every College You Might be Interested in Should be on Your FAFSA