Dependent vs. Independent Student: Which Are You?

Dependency status matters on the FAFSA. Learn more about the definition of dependent students and independent students for financial aid.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on February 11, 2022 · Updated on April 21, 2022

Reviewed by R.J. Weiss

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Dependent vs. Independent Student: Which Are You?

The Federal Student Aid office distributes more than $120 billion in financial aid every year. But before you can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and qualify for aid, you need to figure out your dependency status.

What does dependency mean?

While we tend to think of dependents in financial terms — such as dependents on a tax return — the FAFSA defines dependent vs. independent students a bit differently.

You'll need different documents to file the FAFSA as an independent student than you would as a dependent student. As a result, students need to know their status.

What Is a Dependent Student?

The FAFSA considers a dependent student someone who will receive financial support from their family.

When calculating a student's expected family contribution (EFC), the FAFSA factors in parents' and guardians' financial information — which may cause dependent students to qualify for less aid.

Dependency does not mean the same thing for the FAFSA as it does for IRS tax returns. While a student might not be a dependent for tax purposes, they could still count as a dependent for financial aid purposes.

What Is an Independent Student?

For the FAFSA, an independent student is someone who will not receive any financial support for their education from their parents or guardians.

This means the Federal Student Aid office does not use parents' or guardians' financial information to calculate independent students' EFC. As such, independent students may qualify for more aid (assuming they have a lower EFC).

Several factors determine whether someone qualifies as an independent student. If you meet any of the following criteria, you would be considered an independent student on the FAFSA:

The FAFSA determines dependency status based on a list of questions. Students who answer yes to any of the questions may qualify as an independent student.

If you're still not sure whether you're an independent or dependent student, reach out to the Federal Student Aid office or your school's financial aid office.

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How Does Your Dependency Status Affect the FAFSA?

The Federal Student Aid office determines a student's EFC based on their dependency status. Schools then use your EFC to create a financial aid package designed specifically for you.

In practice, this means dependent students must provide financial information for their parents or guardians. That financial information can affect the amount of aid you receive.

In general, dependent students can expect to receive less financial aid than independent students (assuming the independent student has a lower EFC). Why? If you have fewer people and resources to financially support your education, you'll likely need more aid to be able to attend.

In contrast, if you have at least one parent or guardian supporting you, you'll likely have more financial resources, support, and/or savings to fall back on and will thus require less aid to attend.

What If You're a Dependent Student Without Family Support?

The Federal Student Aid office assumes that dependent students will get financial support from their families. But what about dependent students without family support?

Unfortunately, students still need to provide financial information for their parents or legal guardians, even if they no longer live with them or receive financial support from them.

Keep in mind, if your parents or guardians are indeed not in a financial situation to support you, this will reflect in your EFC. A lower EFC may then qualify you for a larger financial aid package, even as a dependent.

If your parents or guardians refuse to provide financial information, the federal government recommends filling out the FAFSA and explaining your special circumstances. Students who have no contact with their parents or guardians should also fill out the FAFSA and report special circumstances to their school's financial aid office.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute professional financial advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should contact a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.

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