What Are Independent and Dependent Students?

In general, there are also dependent and independent students. What does that mean? It's quite simple: dependent students receive financial support from their parents’ income or are on their full financial support; If you are financially independent of your parents, on the other hand, you can qualify as an independent student.

These two types of students will be discussed today, as this factor of financial assistance from relatives plays an important role in obtaining scholarships, grants, or internships during their studies.

What Is the Difference Between Independent and Dependent Students?

Just like we touched on before, there's a pretty big difference between students who get financial help from their folks, and those who are covering their costs independently and need more financial aid. This isn't only something to think about when you're eyeing scholarships or internships; it really comes into play when you're filling out forms that dive into your finances. If you're in the camp where your parents are footing some or all of your bills, you're going to need to dish out details about both their financial situation and yours.

We're talking about their income, what they own, and how many people are in your family. This info is a big deal, because it helps figure out if you're eligible for any financial aid. If you're flying solo and managing your finances yourself, then you'll need to give the lowdown on your income, assets, and if you have anyone depending on you. The kind of financial help you might get will be based on this information.

When Are You Considered Independent?

In order to be considered an independent student, you must meet one of the following conditions: if you've tied the knot, if you'll be celebrating your 24th birthday by the last day of the year when the award is given, if you've already tossed your graduation cap at university or are diving into further professional studies, if you've been under the legal guardianship of the court up until you turned 18, or if you've served or are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces. Also, if you're looking after dependents of your own who are other family members (excluding a spouse), if you've been navigating life on your own since losing your parents or being in foster care from the age of 13, or if you're facing homelessness or teetering on the edge of it, you qualify as an independent in the eyes of financial aid offices.

When Are You Considered Dependent?

You're considered a dependent student in the eyes of financial aid offices if you rely on your parents or guardians for financial support. This status affects your financial aid application process, including filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Generally, if you're under 24, not married, don't have dependents of your own, aren't a veteran, aren't a graduate or professional student, and meet other specific criteria, you'll likely be classified as a dependent. This means you'll need to provide your parents’ information when applying for financial aid, as it plays a significant role in determining the amount of aid you're eligible to receive.

What If You Have Special Circumstances?

But not all students can be so easily divided into two categories, such as dependent or independent student. There are also special circumstances that we will consider below. Such distinctive conditions can lead to a reevaluation of a student's dependency status, opening avenues for him to access financial aid independently based on his individual circumstances and needs.

You are a U.S. citizen but not your parents

No matter where your parents are from, whether they call the United States home or not, or whether they hold U.S. citizenship, you're still in the running to apply for financial aid through FAFSA (Federal Student Aid) for your education expenses. When it's time to fill out that application, there's no need to worry about entering your parents' citizenship info. And, if a Social Security number is something your parents don't have, it's totally fine—you can just enter zeros in those specific fields when asked for it. A heads-up, though: not having a valid Social Security number means your folks won't be filling out the FAFSA electronically .

But here's the reassuring part: the lack of a Social Security number or U.S. citizenship for your parents doesn't throw a wrench in your chances for getting financial aid. FAFSA's main aim is to help students like you find the financial support you need for your studies, not to get tangled up in the specifics of immigration status.

You have no contact with your parents

In cases where the student does not have the opportunity to contact his parents, or if he is subjected to parental abuse or alienation, the student may not record parents’ information in the FAFSA (Federal Student Aid) application. In this situation, it is impossible to calculate the expected family contribution. Such students will need to contact the financial aid department of their college to discuss their dependent status. However, you need to be prepared for the fact that you will be asked for some supporting documentation to confirm your unique circumstances in order to assess your situation and provide you with financial assistance.

Your parents won't help

If parents refuse to provide financial assistance to their child, or cannot due to certain circumstances, or if they simply do not want to provide financial information to the FAFSA, then the student can report this to the financial assistance department by filling out a form. They will look at what is happening and, perhaps, allow the child to receive subsidized and unsubsidized loans, which have certain restrictions on the size of the loan.

For example, let's say that Sarah's parents did not provide financial information for the FAFSA (Federal Student Aid). In this case, Sarah promptly contacted the school's financial aid office. After checking her situation, they decided that Sarah could apply for an unsubsidized student loan to pay for college. This allowed Sarah to continue her education, despite the lack of support from her parents.

How Does Your Dependency Affect You?

Your label as either a dependent or independent student isn't just a formality when it comes to applying for financial aid, be it through a FAFSA form or hunting down scholarships and grants. But here’s a little secret: even if you're in the dependent camp, you’ve still got a shot at snagging some financial aid. That's because the powers that be—those deciding who gets financial help—aren’t just looking at whether your parents are supporting you. They’re also eyeing up your grades, where you're living, and a bunch of other factors.


Diving into the FAFSA (Federal Student Aid) feels like unlocking a treasure chest, but the map to the gold heavily relies on whether you're charting your course independently or with a financial lifeline from your folks. The heart of the matter is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—a fancy way of saying how much your family could contribute to your education costs. This number is a big deal, because it helps figure out what kind of federal aid might be coming your way, like grants, work-study opportunities, or private loans. If you're counted as a dependent student, your family's finances get the spotlight, directly influencing your EFC. But for those flying solo as independent students, the focus shifts entirely to your financial landscape—what you earn and what you own are what matter here.

Scholarships and grants

Each grant or scholarship has its own set of criteria by which the recipient is determined. Some scholarships are for dependent students, and some are for independent students. As a rule, independent students have better access to scholarships and grants, since they rely only on their own finances and their own income.


When you're hunting for scholarships or grants, it matters a lot if you're financially tied to your folks or making ends meet on your own. Sure, both groups—those who lean on their parents for financial support and those who don't—can tap into financial aid from their school or the government. But, those flying solo, the independent students, often find themselves with a bit of an edge. They're usually eligible for need-based financial aid because they're covering their expenses without parental help, making them more likely to snag that much-needed financial assistance.


What is the difference between an independent student and a dependent student?

To be considered an independent student, you must rely only on your own finances. You won’t need to fill out financial information about your parents when filling out an application to FAFSA. Therefore, you have a better chance of receiving a scholarship or grant. A dependent student receives financial assistance from his parents.

What qualifies you as a dependent student?

A dependent student is someone who relies on their parents or legal guardians for financial support. Factors like age, marital status, living arrangements, and level of support received determine this status.

Is it better to be independent or dependent on FAFSA?

It’s not necessary to compare a dependent vs. independent student. That is, it doesn’t matter if you’re an independent or dependent student: you have a chance to win financial aid. But independent students tend to be a priority for FAFSA, since they are a little more vulnerable financially.

Is it better to file as an independent or a dependent as a college student?

You apply according to your circumstances, but even if you are a dependent student, you will not be denied financial assistance if you have, for example, a good list of academic achievements.