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What students can do if parents can't—or won't—fill out college-aid forms

The following article is from the Wall Street Journal

Generally, college students have a better shot at financial aid when their parents participate in the application process. But parents aren't always willing or able to fulfill this need.

Lack of information about parents' financial means, however, can severely limit students' eligibility for aid, sometimes leading young people to give up on the prospect of college itself.

Recent legislative proposals could make it easier for some students with extenuating family circumstances to apply for aid. But for now, here are two ways students may be able to navigate the financial-aid process without their parents' financial information:

Option 1: Seek to be declared independent
Students could see if they qualify as "independent" under the rules set up by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is the government form for financial aid.

Qualifying as independent allows the applicant to be eligible for the maximum amount of federal loans and gift-based aid without providing their parents' financial information, says Abril Hunt, an outreach manager who focuses on financial literacy for Educational Credit Management Corp., a nonprofit that helps students and families plan and pay for college.

Students who don't live with their parents and who pay their own bills and educational expenses aren't automatically considered independent. Qualifying criteria include: being at least 24 years old on or before Dec. 31 of the award year; being a minor who is legally emancipated; being an orphan or veteran; or having a dependent other than a spouse.

Option 2: Go through the dependency-override process
Individual schools can issue what is known as a "dependency override," which allows a student's FAFSA application to be considered without the parent's financial information.

Overrides are generally only granted due to such extenuating circumstances as an abusive family, abandonment, or the incarceration, hospitalization or institutionalization of both parents. Schools can take weeks or months to decide. Meanwhile, the applicants don't have financial-aid packages to compare.

To seek an override, the applicant submits just the student portion of the FAFSA, then must contact each target school to explain why the parents' financial information isn't included, says Ivette Chavez, director of financial services for the Making Waves Foundation's College & Alumni Program, which advises students on financial aid.

Generally, applicants will be asked to provide supporting documentation, such as letters from a community-based organization, school counselor or homeless shelter, or police records that document abuse, Ms. Chavez says.

If an override is denied, the applicant can appeal. Ms. Chavez recommends scheduling an in-person meeting with the school's financial-aid administrators. Additional documents supporting individuals' claims may also help, she says. Dependency overrides are granted for one year at a time.

Meanwhile, there are proposals in Congress to help. The FAFSA Fairness Act of 2019, for example, would ease the financial-aid application process for students dealing with situations such as parental abandonment, abuse and neglect. The bill would allow students who meet certain criteria to complete the FAFSA without their parents' information and receive an estimate of their federal financial-aid award for each school where they apply. They would then go through a verification process at the school they plan to attend.

Students wouldn't have to repeat the verification process each year they apply for aid at that school, with limited exceptions.

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