I am a rising high school senior in a tough situation. I don't have any money and my parents just told me they aren't contributing to my education. I won't qualify for financial aid because they make too much money. What would I have to go through to make myself independent from them? Do I have to wait until I'm 24 and go to college then so their salaries aren't counted?
The price of a college education -- even at an in-state public institution -- can be overwhelming to a teenager who can barely afford a Netflix subscription and who can’t count on savings, need-based financial aid or parental contributions to cover expenses that can cost more than a three-bedroom house! But if there’s any comfort in knowing you’re not alone, rest assured that “The Dean” has heard from other students over the eons whose parents were in a financial position to help pay for college and yet didn’t ... and for a range of reasons, some of which were hard for this quasi-helicopter mom to fathom. The bad news, of course, is that this situation is usually complicated and stressful. But the good news is that many of these folks report afterwards — once they’ve come out the other side — that navigating their own way through their schooling had made them independent and resourceful early on.
As The Dean attempts to respond to your query, it would be helpful to have answers to questions such as “Why are your parents refusing to help you with college costs?” “Can you live at home after high school ... and would you be willing to?” and “How strong a student are you?” So I’ll provide the information I can without these answers, but know that more details might lead to better information.
For starters, you probably cannot go to court to become officially emancipated from your parents for financial aid purposes. Colleges are very specific when they grant independent-student status and, in order to qualify, students must meet one of these conditions:
- Be a military veteran or on active duty
- Be over age 24
- Be a graduate student
- Have a dependent (child and/or spouse)
- Be an orphan/ ward of the court/homeless
Sometimes (but rarely) there are extenuating circumstances such as neglect or abuse that allow students who have said “No” to the conditions named above to be emancipated nonetheless. However, a parent’s refusal to support a child’s education does not count as either neglect or abuse. Even students who can prove that they are living on their own and paying all of their own expenses are not considered independent for financial aid purposes, and “homeless” only applies to those who don’t have parents or guardians with a place of residence.
So if you won’t be viewed as independent by financial aid officers, what are your other options?
If you are a good (but not necessarily amazing) student, you may be in the running for significant merit aid, but you’ll need to invest some time and effort to land it. Merit aid is typically not tied to household income and is awarded by many colleges to attract their most sought-after applicants. In order to be “sought after” you don’t need perfect grades and test scores (though these help!); but you should have grades and scores that are significantly better than those of the typical admitted freshman. (Merit aid is sometimes awarded for other talents — most commonly athletics, also art, music, etc., but— despite the media attention that sports scholarships receive — the lion’s share of merit bucks are for academics.)
Unfortunately, finding merit money that will make a difference to someone in your shoes can feel like looking for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Colleges aren’t known for transparency in the merit-money department. Too often, you’ll find websites that say something like, “We offer merit scholarships, which range from $2000 to full tuition, to students who have demonstrated academic and extracurricular leadership.” Such vague descriptions do little to help you decipher whether or not you’ll be considered for a merit grant and — if so — how much it might be. So The Dean is a fan of colleges, such as the University of Alabama, that are clear from the get-go. If you’re interested in Bama and live out of state, you’ll know roughly what merit aid you should expect, even before you apply. Sadly, however, most colleges aren’t this forthcoming.
As you start to research merit-aid possibilities, here are a couple pitfalls to avoid:
- Big bucks aren’t always enough bucks: It’s tempting to jump for joy when you’ve learned that you’ve received a $100,000 merit scholarship. But keep your feet on the ground! Commonly, such scholarships translate into $25,000 per year over four years and are doled out by private colleges (often less-selective ones) that are priced in the neighborhood of $60K/year for tuition, room, board, books, etc. This means that you’re still on the hook for $35K/year -- far more than you would pay at your own state’s flagship university ... which may be more selective and offer more opportunities. So don’t get starry-eyed over merit money until you compare it to the total Cost of Attendance.
- Full-tuition is not a free ride: Although tuition may make up the largest chunk of your college expenses, a “full-tuition scholarship” is not the same as a “full cost-of-attendance scholarship” or a “free ride.” With the first, you’ll still need to cover room, board, books (steel yourself for sticker shock here unless you’re adept at bargain-hunting), fees (at some universities these are far from incidental), health insurance (usually mandatory), transportation and other extras. So if you’re fortunate enough to score a full-tuition merit scholarship, don’t overlook what else will be on your college bill. Hint: At many colleges, student dorm assistants (usually called “Resident Advisors" or something similar) receive free on-campus housing and sometimes free food, too. Snagging a job like this can go a long way toward keeping your costs down. Even if you have to bite the bullet and pay for room and board in your first year, many colleges allow sophomores to apply to be R.A.s, although at some schools only juniors or seniors are eligible. So as you start researching colleges, keep an eye out for places where sophomore R.A.’s are common. (This is a question you can ask admission officials.) Get involved in a couple campus activities as a freshman in order to strengthen your R.A. application. Then, when you fill out this application, be sure to explain that you’re paying for college with no family assistance.
If “The Dean” ruled the world, there would be one clear, up-to-date directory to help high school students home in on the merit scholarships that they were most likely to get. This list doesn’t yet exist, but you can find advice on select College Confidential threads like this one and this one.
When you look through these lists ... especially the ones for full-cost-of-attendance scholarships ... you’ll spot a variety of institutions, ranging from some hyper-selective and celebrated places (e.g., Duke) to those that are less well known (e.g., Barry, Arcadia). As explained above, colleges use merit bucks to lure their top prospects, so your best odds of nailing merit money will be to focus on schools where you are likely to be at the front of the pack and not somewhere in the middle or even high middle. Note also that, while many colleges award merit aid without a separate application, the best bucks often do require students to complete and submit extra forms ... and often before the regular deadline. So read the fine print!
The Dean’s constant credo is that the major scholarships usually come directly from the colleges themselves, but with some persistence and a lot of luck, you may be able to score a biggie from a civic organization, private foundation or corporation, etc. Don’t count on such funds to pay your way through a pricey college, because this is rare. These scholarships are most likely to range from about $500 to a couple thousand. But you might be able to cobble together several to have an impact on your total costs. There are a number of search engines that begin with a questionnaire that asks about your academic strengths and interests and also about other factors that might make you suitable for scholarships with very specific requirements such as career goals, home state, parents’ employment, ethnic background, etc. Once the search engine spits out a list of scholarships that meet your profile, you can decide which ones to pursue. A few will have easy-peasy applications; others may require an essay — or several.
Even if you can’t land a giant scholarship, there are some colleges that are free for everyone. The US military academies (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) are best known for providing a free education but they also require a service commitment thereafter. (These academies have a complex admission process that requires a Congressional nomination. Most prospective students start this process by the winter of junior year, so if you’re interested but haven’t begun yet, jump on it right away.) However, there are other colleges that are also cost-free or at least tuition-free ... although sometimes only for students who meet certain criteria. You can read about them here. While these are generally not places that provide the sort of rah-rah college experience that you see in the movies, when you read the blurbs about each you may find that one or more could be a fit for you.
You’re probably already saying, “Duh” because most everyone knows that attending a local public two-year school can be the cheapest way to earn a college degree. But if your parents won’t pay for your college, will they allow you to remain at home without charging you room and board? If so, you will find that a community college is typically affordable enough for you to cover the costs yourself with a summer job and part-time job. According to the College Board, the average annual cost of community college is $3,440. So even with books, transportation and lunch money, you should be able to complete a year of school for well under $4,000. Then a transfer counselor at your community college can help you find four-year schools that have scholarships specifically earmarked for community college grads. You probably don’t think that living at home sounds ideal ... especially when your parents don’t seem to be behind your college plans. But if you have the option to do so, this may be a reasonable solution for your first two years. Public four-year colleges -- while cheaper than most private schools -- might still be out of reach for you without need-based financial aid, merit aid or savings.
While official “gap year” programs may charge thousands of dollars for students to do “volunteer work” around the globe, many gap-year students spend their time off in a far less glamorous way ... working to pay for college. If you were to get a job for a year, you would still have to borrow money to attend college afterward (without a big merit scholarship) but at least you could make a dent in future debt. (And, yes, there are some loans that you can get without a parent co-signer.) Again, the best way to save money during your gap year would be to live at home, but this may not be desirable ... or possible. There are also a few gap-year programs that actually pay a stipend and provide some funds for college upon completion. Check out City Year and AmeriCorps NCCC. While your earnings won’t be on par with what you might squirrel away laboring on a construction site or waiting tables in a snazzy restaurant, the experience should be application-worthy and will put you in a community with others your age — some of whom, like you, will be responsible for their own future college costs.
Considerations for Next Steps
As you decide on your next steps, it’s important to consider your college goals. Are you determined to have a conventional college career that includes late-night chats in the dormitory common room and intramural ping-pong matches? Or is your main priority to earn a degree that you can parlay into job or graduate school opportunities or that will lead to certification in a particular field such as accounting, teaching, engineering, etc., even if you never see the inside of a fraternity house or football stadium?
For the former, you’ll probably have to aim for merit scholarships and outside scholarships and also expect to accumulate debt. For the latter, you should seriously consider starting at a community college. You can also look into online options (increasingly available at both private and public colleges) and Continuing Education programs. (“Continuing Education” -- called by different names at different colleges -- is usually tailored to adult students. While many traditional undergraduate programs will not permit students to enroll part-time, Continuing Ed caters to part-timers and usually includes classes that meet only once per week in the evenings or even online, thus facilitating concurrent employment.)
Finally, here’s a question that I probably should have asked you at the start: Are you sure that you can’t get any need-based financial aid? Sometimes families, even in the upper echelons of middle-class, qualify for more assistance than they expect (especially when they expect none!) So if you haven’t done so already, play around with the College Board’s online Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculator.
When asked to “Pick a Formula” to choose between the “Federal Methodology” or the “Institutional Methodology,” be sure to select “BOTH.” The Federal Methodology estimates your required contribution at colleges that use only the FAFSA to assess financial need. The Institutional Methodology requests additional information that is used by colleges that also require the CSS Profile form. (These are generally the more selective colleges and universities.) You may find that your Expected Contribution at FM colleges is different from that at IM colleges. You will need your parents’ tax forms to complete this questionnaire, so I hope they cooperate. Once you determine your EFC, you will have some idea of whether or not you will qualify for need-based aid. Any time a college’s total Cost of Attendance is greater than your EFC, you should receive financial aid from that school. (You won’t always get it, but you do qualify.) So even if your EFC is $60,000, you will still qualify for need-based aid at colleges with a total cost of more than that (and there are many!)
You can also try the online Net Price Calculator tools to estimate your total cost at any college that currently interests you. Although results from these tools may not be completely accurate, they should put you in the ballpark.
Even if your parents won’t support you financially, I hope that they’ll help you unravel some of these financial complexities and provide financial data that you can use if you apply for loans. And maybe you can even discuss a meet-me-halfway kind of bargain with them: If you pay for your first year of college yourself and do well, perhaps they will agree to provide some support for the subsequent years.
Best wishes as you travel the rocky road ahead, and write back if you have more information to share.
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