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Parents won't pay your tuition? The government won't help either

Education Secretary Arne Duncan helps students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students whose parents can afford to pay for college, but don't, face few options.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan helps students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students whose parents can afford to pay for college, but don't, face few options.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

If parents can afford to help their kids pay for college, but don't want to, their children are in for a nasty surprise when they start to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as these tweets show:

If a student is under 24, the government and most colleges assume that the student's parents will help pay for the cost of college — even if ample documentation exists that the parents won't.

1) A growing share of parents say they won't pay for college at all

The majority of parents plan to help pay for their students' college education, according to an annual poll from Discover Student Loans. But the share that say they definitely won't increased over the past year: 16 percent now say they won't help pay for college, up from 12 percent in 2013.

The survey doesn't tell us anything about whether the parents could afford to contribute; it's possible they couldn't, so the results when the federal government analyzes financial need would be the same either way.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty of parents tell students they're on their own when it's time to pay the tuition bills. Other surveys have found that the share parents contribute to the cost of college has been falling steadily; an annual Sallie Mae report found that parents contribute $3,000 less out of pocket now than they did in 2010.

2) Being a dependent is the default for federal financial aid

A 23-year-old who pays her own bills, her own rent, has a job and files taxes independent of her parents would be considered an adult in most contexts. But the Education Department assumes that students under 24 are dependent on their parents unless they prove otherwise.

This stringent requirement is meant to deter students from gaming the system. If it was too easy for students to be considered independent, students from families who could easily afford to pay for college — and would — might get Pell Grants and cheaper student loans intended for students from families without the resources to pay for college on their own. (How real are these concerns? As college tuition prices continue to rise, there is evidence that people have tried to game the system in other ways, such as paying consultants to help students gain residency for in-state tuition.)

3) People under 24 can only be considered independent if they meet one of 6 conditions

So how do you prove you're not a dependent? There are only six ways to do so, and most of them are pretty drastic:

  1. Get married. People under 24 who are married are considered independent of their parents. There are at least a few cases of students getting married in order to qualify for in-state tuition in California, a separate issue.
  2. Have kids of your own. People under 24 who claim their own dependents are considered independent of their own parents. Those children must be living with them, or if they're not, the student must provide at least half of their financial support.
  3. Be a veteran or an active duty member of the US Military.
  4. Be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. This has to be certified by officials from the K-12 school system or a social services program.
  5. Have been in foster care, an orphan or a ward of the court after age 13.
  6. Be an emancipated minor. This is a lengthy process, not a shortcut to getting more financial aid. Not all states allow emancipation for people under 18, and laws can vary by state.

4) Individual financial aid officers can 'override' the usual definition and declare students independent, but it happens very rarely

This ends up happening in fewer than 4 percent of cases, according to analysis of Education Department data from a 2012 study of students receiving financial aid. And when it does, it's for situations that are truly drastic — students whose parents cut them out of their lives due to their sexual orientation, for example, or students who have no idea where their parents are or how they might be contacted.

The Education Department's advice to colleges makes clear that parents who simply refusing to pay for college is not enough justification for the federal government to consider a student independent:

Several conditions that do not qualify as unusual circumstances, either individually or in combination, include parents who refuse to contribute, are unwilling to provide information, or do not claim the student as an income tax dependent, or a student who demonstrates total self-sufficiency. In addition, the fact that a student's parents live in another country does not qualify as an unusual circumstance.

5) Does this make any sense?

The New America Foundation's Ben Miller argued in a recent white paper that the way colleges determine dependency is out of step with the tax code and can put slightly older college students at a disadvantage. Miller argues that students who start college at or before age 20 should continue to be considered dependents until proven otherwise, but that the criteria for independence should be relaxed so that students who can prove they're supporting themselves would qualify as independent adults. Students who start college after age 20 would be classified as dependent or independent based on how they file their taxes.

Miller's solution would still put 18-year-olds whose parents don't want to contribute to their education at a disadvantage. But it at least could sort out the ones who are truly supporting themselves.

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