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The FAFSA Option No One Told Me About, & How It Helped Me Get My Degree

I remember finally walking into my college’s financial aid office toward the end of my freshman year. I was wringing my hands, looking around nervously, unsure of where to start in explaining my financial obstacles. After a bit of poking around, one of the designated staff members agreed to sit down with me and guide me through my FAFSA renewal for the upcoming academic year.

“Okay, and what’s your mother’s information?” she eventually asked.

I hesitated as her fingers hovered patiently over the keyboard.

“I don’t have it.”

“Okay, how about your father’s?”

“I don’t have that, either.”

“Hmm. Then we can’t fill out your FAFSA today, sweetie. We need your parents’ information. Go back and get it, then we can talk, okay?”

Satisfied with her final command, she got up walked away without another word. But I remained seated, battling tears. Later on, I would eventually reach back out to my father and reestablish a wonderful, healthy relationship. But at the time? I was on my own. I hadn’t talked to my father in years. I didn’t even know where my mother was. I paid my own bills. When I wasn’t on campus, I relied on my friends and their families to temporarily house me. So, why in the world couldn’t I just apply for financial aid using solely my own information?

Well, what I later learned was that I actually could, thanks to something called Dependency Override.

1. What Is Dependency Override?

Usually, FAFSA still considers all students legal “dependents” of their parent or guardian’s household, which is why you must submit their information with your own. For special circumstances, however, a student can apply for “Dependency Override” in order to declare themselves as an “independent” individual, rendering their parents’ information unnecessary for financial aid.

Note that I said, “special circumstances” (the government’s words, not mine). That is, not every college student can apply for Dependency Override and, even then, each student’s paperwork will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But please know that you can apply if…

  • Your parents are incarcerated
  • You’re fleeing an abusive parent/guardian
  • Your parents’ whereabouts are currently unknown
  • You’re an otherwise unaccompanied youth and at risk of becoming homeless
  • You’re experiencing some combination of the aforementioned circumstances or something more

2. How Do I Apply For Dependency Override?

In short, your D.O. paperwork has to be renewed every year with your FAFSA in order to prove that your situation is ongoing. Plus, what specific paperwork you need to submit may be subject to change depending on your specific institution’s requirements. But whenever I submitted my D.O. paperwork, it usually involved…

  • My tax records from the previous year
  • My institution’s specific Dependency Override forms
  • A written statement detailing my struggles and why I was applying for D.O.
  • Three written statements corroborating my situation. I usually submitted statements written by…
    • The mother of the family who housed me when my mother overdosed
    • My high school’s on-campus psychologist
    • My college therapist
    • Professors who I had to disclose my situation to for whatever reason

3. Financial Considerations of Dependency Override

While being granted Dependency Override did provide me with additional federal grant money, it wasn’t enough to offset the price tag that came with going to a private institution. What it mostly did (for me, at least) was allow all of my federal loans to be maxed out. In other words, my D.O. allowed me to obtain loan money that I couldn’t normally get without a parental cosigner. So, you can imagine how I now struggle with some pretty hefty student loan debt on my back. That being said, had I not applied for the override — had I not maxed those loans and gotten whatever leftover grants I could — I wouldn’t have my degree today.

At the end of the day, of course, how you structure your D.O. money is up to you. There’s nothing saying that your loan landscape will be identical to mine just because you fill out the same paperwork.

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In all, if you’re struggling to battle your way through college alone, I encourage you to reach out to your financial aid office about Dependency Override. Moreover, I encourage you to reach out to your campus counseling center and talk to someone about your situation. When you’re on your own, it becomes increasingly imperative that you equip yourself with the means to stay financially, physically, and mentally resilient.

Just know that you’re not alone. Know that you will get through this. And know that you do have options.

Samantha currently works as a full-time journalist for a local print publication on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A music major turned English major turned copywriter and editor, she’s not entirely sure where she’s going but is determined to enjoy the post-grad ride.

Image via Unsplash

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