What can you do if your parents can’t help pay for school?
This section of Finaid provides advice to students whose parents are unable or unwilling to help students pay for school. Regardless of the situation, some of the more common questions received by Finaid come from students seeking help because their parents cannot contribute to their education.
Finaid supports changes in federal legislation that would shift the burden to the students. Unfortunately, current federal law does not provide many options for students who want to go to college but whose parents refuse to help.
For an abbreviated version of this advice, see Fastweb’s How to Deal If Your Parents Won’t Pay.
Federal Government Policies on Parental Responsibility
The federal government and the schools consider it primarily the family’s responsibility to pay for school. They provide financial assistance only when the family is unable to pay. If a family just doesn’t want to pay, that won’t make a difference. Parents have a greater responsibility toward their children than the government or the schools.
The US Department of Education has published guidance to financial aid administrators indicating that neither parent refusal to contribute to the student’s education nor parent unwillingness to provide information on the student aid application or for verification is sufficient grounds for a dependency status override. This is true even if the parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes or the student demonstrates total self-sufficiency.
In cases of divorce, the custodial parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA form. If the custodial parent remarries, the finances of the custodial parent’s spouse (the stepparent) must be included. This is clearly stated in Section 475(f)3 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-329), the piece of Federal legislation that authorizes most Federal student aid programs.
All public and private colleges follow the law not only for the awarding of federal and state student aid, but also for the awarding of the school’s own aid. In fact, many colleges go further and consider not only the custodial parent and stepparent’s income and assets, but also the income and assets of the non-custodial parent.
Prenuptial agreements are ignored in student aid need analysis. A prenuptial agreement is an agreement between the husband and wife, and as such cannot be binding on a third party, such as the government or the college. In addition, a prenuptial agreement cannot waive the obligation to help pay for the children’s education, as even a natural parent cannot waive the children’s rights. If the prenuptial agreement included a clause waiving the obligation to help pay for the children’s education, most courts would declare that clause null and void.
Advice for Students and Parents
Fortunately, there are ways for parents to help with their child’s education without having to provide financially. By providing a little clarity for both students and parents, both can end up on the same page when it comes to getting help to pay for school from other sources.
Your first goal should be to encourage your parents to complete the financial aid forms. Even if they don’t want to help you pay for college costs, by refusing to complete the forms they prevent you from getting aid on your own account (e.g., government grants and student loans). After you have convinced them to complete the forms you can try getting them to help you pay for college.
What to do if your parents refuse to complete financial aid forms.
Remind your parents that submitting the forms does not obligate them to provide support, but that if they refuse to file the FAFSA, you will not be eligible for any need-based aid on your own.
College financial aid administrators are permitted to offer dependent students an unsubsidized Stafford loan without requiring the parents to file a FAFSA, provided that the financial aid administrator verifies that the parents have ended financial support and will not file the FAFSA. The unsubsidized Stafford loan is not based on financial need and is a loan, but at least it’s something to help you pay for school.
But if you can convince your parents to file the FAFSA, you might qualify for need-based aid, such as the subsidized Stafford loan, Perkins loan, and Pell Grant, as well as institutional aid. By not filing the FAFSA, they prevent you from getting any of this aid.
If your parents are concerned about privacy, remind them that the confidentiality of student records, including financial aid applications, is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In particular, schools will not disclose information submitted by the parent to the student (or to the parent’s ex-spouse).
Talk to the financial aid administrator at your college. Sometimes they are able to intercede with the parents and convince them to complete the FAFSA. Sometimes it helps to have a third party talk with your parents if the atmosphere between you and your parents is too charged with emotion.
Some students have filed the forms by forging their parents’ signature. This is not advisable, as the penalties for doing this are quite severe, and if you don’t have a copy of your parents’ tax return, you’ll probably get caught when the numbers don’t match.
What to do if your parents are involved in a messy divorce.
Talk to each parent separately. If they are concerned about the privacy of the financial information on the financial aid applications, have them speak to the financial aid administrator at the school. Financial aid administrators are very careful to safeguard the privacy of the student and parents, and will not allow one parent to see the information submitted by the other. If the school is served with a court order requiring them to divulge the information, they will first inform the affected parent and not do anything until the parent has had time to fight the order in court. Education records, including financial aid applications and supporting documentation, are protected by very strong federal privacy laws, such as FERPA.
What to do if your parents refuse to pay.
If you do not meet the criteria spelled out for independent status (see below), you are considered to be dependent on your parents and their income and resources will determine your eligibility for assistance. So if your parents refuse to pay, you will have to make up the difference. The school and the government will not help.
Talk to your parents and lay out all of your finances in front of them. Show them how much money you have and can earn, demonstrating that you’re doing what you can to cover the costs. Show them how much it will cost and the size of the gap. Make it clear to them that if they don’t help fill that gap, you won’t be able to complete your education, no matter how hard you try.
What to do if your stepparent refuses to file forms or provide support.
Remind them that the federal government counts their income and assets, regardless of their refusal. If they point to a prenuptial agreement, tell them that this agreement is between them and their spouse. You are not party to this agreement, nor is the government, so it is not binding upon you. Encourage them to complete the FAFSA, since it makes you eligible for need-based aid even if they do not help with the college costs.
What to do if your parents don’t want to take out loans to pay for your education.
Make a deal with your parents, where you agree to assume responsibility for the payments on the PLUS loan after you graduate and get a job. You’ll graduate heavily in debt, and will have to struggle, but at least you’ll be able to graduate.
Unsubsidized Stafford Loans without Parental Information Section 479A(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended by section 472(a)(4) of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, allows dependent students to obtain an unsubsidized Stafford loan without parental information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if the college financial aid administrator “verifies that the parent or parents of such student have ended financial support of such student and refuse to file such form.” However, most students would get more financial aid if their parents complete the FAFSA or if the student is granted a dependency override.