For purposes of applying for federal student aid, what’s the difference between a dependent student and an independent student?

Read the definitions, find out who has to provide parent information on the FAFSASM, and learn what to do if you aren’t in contact with your parents.

Dependency Status

Your dependency status determines whose information you must report on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSASM).

  • If you’re a dependent student, you will report your and your parents’ information.
  • If you’re an independent student, you will report your own information (and, if you’re married, your spouse’s).

The federal student aid programs are based on the concept that it is primarily your and your family’s responsibility to pay for your education. And because a dependent student is assumed to have the support of parents, the parents’ information has to be assessed along with the student’s, in order to get a full picture of the family’s financial strength. If you’re a dependent student, it doesn’t mean your parents are required to pay anything toward your education; this is just a way of looking at everyone in a consistent manner.

Am I dependent or independent?
Which parent’s information should I report on the FAFSASM?
What if I don’t live with my parents?
What if my parents aren’t going to help me pay for college and refuse to provide information for my FAFSASM?
What if I have no contact with my parents?


Am I dependent or independent?

Your answers to questions on the FAFSA determine whether you are considered a dependent or independent student. The questions change a little from one year’s FAFSA to the next year’s; for instance, the 2014–15 FAFSA asks whether you were born before Jan. 1, 1991, while the 2013–14 FAFSA asks whether you were born before Jan. 1, 1990. Here are the 2014–15 questions that determine your dependency status, first in a graphic format and then in a table:

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Dependency Status Questions on the 2014–15 FAFSA

Were you born before Jan. 1, 1991?

Yes

No

As of today, are you married? (Also answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)

Yes

No 

At the beginning of the 2014–15 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?

Yes

No

Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)

Yes

No

Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*

Yes

No

Do you now have—or will you have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015?

Yes

No

Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2015?

Yes

No

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?

Yes

No

Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship?

Yes

No

At any time on or after July 1, 2013, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison, (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or (c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program?**

Yes

No

* Answer No (you are not a veteran) if you (1) have never engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces, (2) are currently a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student or a cadet or midshipman at a service academy, (3) are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee activated only for state or training purposes, or (4) were engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces but released under dishonorable conditions. Also answer No if you are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces and will continue to serve through June 30, 2015.

Answer Yes (you are a veteran) if you (1) have engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces or are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies and (2) were released under a condition other than dishonorable. Also answer Yes if you are not a veteran now but will be one by June 30, 2015.

**If you do not have a determination that you are homeless, but you believe you are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, answer “No” to the FAFSA questions concerning being homeless. Then contact your financial aid office to explain your situation.

What if I answered Yes to one or more of the questions above?

If so, then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be an independent student and will not provide information about your parents on the FAFSA.

What if I answered No to every question?

If so, then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be a dependent student, and you must provide information about your parents on the FAFSA.

Girl and boy working on computer

Not living with parents or not being claimed by them on tax forms does not make you an independent student for purposes of applying for federal student aid.

Note: Health profession students may be required to provide parent information regardless of their dependency status. The parent information is used in determining eligibility for Health Professions Student Loans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Which parent’s information should I report on the FAFSASM?

If your legal (biological and/or adoptive) parents are married to each other, or are not married to each other and live together, you should report information about both of them on your FAFSA. However, we recognize that many situations are a little more complicated, so we’ve provided information on how to figure out which parent(s) should provide information on the FAFSA.

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What if I don’t live with my parents?

You still must answer the questions about your parents if you’re considered a dependent student.

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What if my parents aren’t going to help me pay for college and refuse to provide information for my FAFSASM?

You can’t be considered independent of your parents just because they refuse to help you with this process. If you do not provide their information on the FAFSA, the application will be considered “rejected,” and you might not be able to receive any federal student aid. The most you would be able to get (depending on what the financial aid office at your college decides) would be a loan called an unsubsidized loan. The FAFSA will tell you what to do if you are in this situation. Learn more about how to fill out the FAFSA when your parents aren’t supporting you and won’t provide their information.

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What if I have no contact with my parents?

If you have no contact with your parents and don’t know where they live, or you’ve left home due to an abusive situation, fill out the FAFSA and then immediately get in touch with the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend. The financial aid staff will tell you what to do next. Learn more about how to fill out the FAFSA if you have special circumstances that prevent you from providing parent information.

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