Paying for College

Aid for High School Senior On His Own

Question: I am 17 and have left home due to family problems. I have not legally emancipated myself yet, but I am self-supporting and want to know what my options are concerning government grants, tax breaks or anything that will make my final year in high school a bit easier.

Our expertise is in college admission and we don't feel that we can give you a responsible answer about all of the financial issues you may need to understand as you face a senior year on your own. However, when it comes to college and independent students like yourself, we can offer some advice about financing your college education.


As you may know, there are two main types of financial aid: need-based aid, which is tied to your family income and assets (and that includes your parents--even if you don't live with them--more on that in a minute) and merit aid, which is money for college given to you because a college is trying to recruit you for any number of reasons (grades, class rank, athletic ability, special talents, etc.). We'll explain here how both apply to your non-traditional situation:

Need-based aid:

Most students qualify for some sort of need-based aid if their family income is below roughly $120,000 per year. If it's well below that, you will probably qualify for a lot of aid. However, even if you go to court and emancipate yourself legally from your parents, the vast majority of colleges will still count their income when they determine if you qualify for need-based aid (and how much you'll qualify for). If your parents don't have a lot of money (and if you're on decent enough terms with them that they will help you complete the financial aid forms) then that will be good news for you.

If, on the other hand, your parents can afford to pay a lot towards your education but are unwilling to do so, then you will have extra hurdles to scale. We consulted with one college financial aid expert who told us that there are no simple solutions. Even if a court of law was to proclaim you independent of your parents, the majority of college aid offices would not. She thus advises you to proceed on a school-by-school basis. That is, once you compile a list of the colleges you'd like to attend, you should then contact financial aid personnel at all of them and explain your situation. (This isn’t quite as time-consuming as it sounds. That is, you should summarize your situation in one e-mail that you send to multiple places. You can then follow up with the colleges that seem encouraging.)

Some colleges may be willing to take your extenuating circumstances into consideration, while others definitely won't. Our expert tells us that public colleges tend to be more flexible here than private ones. That might sound surprising, because often it’s the private schools that are more able to tweak the rules than the public institutions (and they often have more money to give away), but—in this case—you may find that the opposite is true.

Ordinarily, a student is not considered “independent” from a financial aid officer’s point of view unless he or she is at least 24 year of age or has satisfied several other conditions (e.g., has completed military service, is an orphan or ward of the court, or is married). In seeking an exception to this policy, you should be prepared to provide as much documentation as possible to validate your claim of independence. Tax records, pay stubs, rent and utility receipts, affidavits from employers, friends parents, former teachers, etc. can all help your cause. Be prepared to reveal personal information about yourself that you might find intrusive. If you endured particularly difficult conditions at home (e.g., physical abuse) that led to your early independence, you should explain this as candidly as possible and provide as much documentation as you can. Nonetheless, expect an uphill battle and inconsistencies among the different colleges or universities you query.

Keep in mind that while your relationship with your parents appears to be a troubled one, perhaps if they understand that you cannot receive any government aid whatsoever without their participation in the completion of your aid forms, they may be cooperative and provide the information (or even the funding) that you need. College financial aid officers may also help you obtain loans to cover what is known as your "Expected Family Contribution," even if your parents refuse to help out. However, in order to calculate this "EFC," your parents will have to work with you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (which you can get at your school or online at www.fafsa.ed.gov ).

Merit Aid:

If you are not on speaking terms with your parents or if they refuse to fill out financial aid forms or to contribute to your college costs, then your best bet may be merit aid. Some colleges have a lot of it (that is, they offer a number of full scholarships that even include room and board) while other colleges give only small amounts that won't put much of a dent in your bills. Some give none at all. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to quickly identify which colleges offer what. Your guidance counselor may be able to be of some help there. In general, however, the best way to get merit aid (unless you qualify for an athletic scholarship) is to apply to colleges that are eager to recruit you. If you are a member of an underrepresented minority group (generally African-American, Native American or Latino, but it depends on the college) then you will be a desirable recruit at many colleges that have primarily Caucasian student bodies. If you are not an underrepresented minority, then your best bet for merit aid is to apply to private colleges (and sometimes state schools, though they tend to have less merit aid than private colleges do) whose "admitted student profile" is not as good as yours. In other words, if you are an "A" student with 1300 SATs, pick places that normally admit "B" students with 1100 SATs. Or if you are a "B" student, look for less competitive colleges that typically attract "C" students, and so on.

The most important thing to realize is that, when it comes to going to college, even if you are on your own and struggling, you will have options and you shouldn't rule out a college education. Obviously, the better your grades and test scores are, the more options will arise, but there will be a place for you somewhere regardless. We wish you luck with what is surely a stressful situation. Be persistent and patient, and you may get the good news you’re looking for.