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What can you do if your parents refuse to help?


This section of FinAid provides advice to students whose parents refuse to help them pay for college.

Parents who struggle to help their children pay for college are to be commended. But there are also many parents who refuse to accept any responsibility for their children's education. It is not the intention of this section of the page to insult hardworking parents, but to address a very real problem faced by numerous students. Some of the more common questions received by FinAid come from students seeking help because their parents refuse to provide any help for a variety of reasons, including misplaced priorities.

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.

Parents have Primary 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. (See Dear Colleague Letter GEN-03-07 and page AVG-28 of the Application Verification Guide.)

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.

Unfortunately, a 1998 study showed that children of divorced parents are less likely to matriculate in college and receive less financial support than children of intact marriages. The study (Judith S. Wallerstein and Julia M. Lewis, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study", Hyperion Press, 2001) found that 29 percent of children with divorced parents get parental support for college expenses, compared with 88 percent of children from intact families.

Parent Reasons for Refusing to Help

Parents give many excuses for refusing to file financial aid application forms and for refusing to help with college costs. Some of the more common reasons they give include:

  • Some parents mistakenly believe that if they refuse to contribute, the school will declare the student independent and pick up the parent's share of the college costs.

  • Parents who are divorced or separated (or in the process of becoming divorced) use their refusal as a weapon against the other parent. They don't seem to realize that this hurts the student, and only serves to derail the student's academic and career goals.

  • Some parents feel that their responsibility ends when the student walks out the door on their way to college. They feel that their children are adult now, so it's their responsibility. (Most states have laws specifying that child support ends at age 18 or 21. College support is addressed separately in several states, and the requirement does not end when the child reaches the age of majority. It is usually a good idea for parents undergoing divorce to explicitly address college support as part of the divorce decree, specifying who is responsible for paying for college support and the percentage responsibility, how many semesters of support will be provided, and whether college support ends when the child reaches age 24.)

  • Some parents refuse to fill out the financial aid forms because they think they won't qualify, they're concerned about privacy, or they don't want their children to know how much they earn.

  • Sometimes stepparents don't feel responsible for their stepchildren, and feel it is unfair that the government requires them to pay.

  • Sometimes stepparents have children by another marriage and place a greater priority on helping their natural children than their stepchildren.

  • Sometimes the parents have stopped supporting the child, and refuse to fill out the forms because they no longer support the child. (This is a very strange argument -- using their irresponsibility on one issue to justify inappropriate behavior on another.)

  • Sometimes the parents refuse to complete the financial aid application because they don't pay their income taxes or are a tax protester.

  • Sometimes the parents refuse to complete the financial aid application forms because they don't want their children to go to college or they don't want them to go to a particular college.

  • And sometimes the parents just don't want to help.

The Other Side of the Story

In some cases the parents are refusing to help because of a conflict with their child, typically because of religious or ideological issues. For example, the parents may disagree with the student's boyfriend or girlfriend (e.g., different race, different religion, same sex, or just don't like him/her) and are threatening to cut the student off financially if the student does not cease the relationship. In other cases the student is not doing their part, and the parents refuse to pick up the slack. Or there may be worse circumstances, such as criminal activity by the student.

If you are a student in such a situation, you need to carefully assess the possibilities for reconciliation with your parents. You probably love your parents and your significant other, and are being torn in two directions. How you handle this situation is a decision that only you can make.

When you make your decision, you should consider not just your current position and feelings (and those of your parents), but also how things might change in the future. For example, some students are at odds with their parents over a high school sweetheart, often their first love. You should never go to a school just because your girlfriend or boyfriend is going to go there. People change, especially when they are exposed to the diverse opportunities in college. Your girlfriend or boyfriend might meet someone new in school and fall in love with them, or you might yourself meet someone new and exciting. If your mutual love is true, it can survive when you're apart. If it can't survive the test of distance, then it was short-lived to begin with. So try to take a step back and examine all the possibilities and consequences carefully.

In cases of divorce, sometimes the non-custodial parent hasn't had much contact with the student and feels that the child only talks to them when they need money. You can forestall this problem by maintaining a good relationship with both of your biological parents.

A Typical Story

The following story is based on some of the pleas for help received by FinAid every week. All identifying information has been removed or generalized.

My parents are divorced and have been since I was very young. My mother was initially granted custody, but I was placed in a foster home when she became disabled and could no longer support us. My father was then granted custody, and I went to live with him, his wife, and her kids. My stepmother hates me, heaps abuse on me, and wants my father to get rid of me. Starting in my junior year of high school, my father told me that he would no longer support me, and that I was going to have to pay rent if I wanted to continue to live with him. So I started working forty hours a week while I was attending high school to pay for my food, rent, and clothing. When I graduated from high school my father and his wife kicked me out of the house. My friend's parents took me in and provided me with shelter.

When it came time to apply for college, my father initially agreed to help me pay for school. When the Student Aid Report came back, however, he tore it up and refused to help. I was able to go to a local community college with my savings from work, but now he's refusing to fill out the FAFSA. I am doing everything I can to pay for school, but I've exhausted my savings, and without any financial aid I'm going to have to drop out. Is there anything I can do to get myself declared independent? I'm self-supporting and haven't lived with my parents for three years, but I don't satisfy the federal definition. Please help!

A Few Tips

It is an unfortunate reality that students whose parents refuse to acknowledge their responsibilities are unable to further their education until they meet the independent student definition.

Here is some advice on how to convince your parents to help you.

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.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 amended the Higher Education Act of 1965 to permit college financial aid administrators to 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 refuse to file the FAFSA. The unsubsidized Stafford loan is not based on financial need and its 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 refusing to file, they prevent you from getting any of this aid.

If your parents refuse to file the forms because they haven't filed a tax return or owe taxes, there isn't anything you can do. The federal government doesn't provide financial aid to families of tax evaders and tax protesters. If you have evidence of your parents tax evasion, you could consider turning them in to the IRS, since the IRS does provide a reward for such information. (If your parents are sufficiently wealthy, the reward could pay for your education!)

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. Remind them that they do love you, and that their refusal to file the aid applications or provide funds hurts you, not the other parent. 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.

Even if your parents aren't on speaking terms, make sure that you maintain a relationship with both parents. Sometimes one parent will refuse to pay because he or she had little or no contact with the child and doesn't feel close to the child. If your parent believes that you're only turning to them when you need money, they are more likely to refuse to help. How would you like to be treated as nothing more than a wallet?

What to do if your parents refuse to pay.
Have a heart-to-heart chat with your parents, and remind them that the federal government and the schools consider it the family's primary responsibility to pay for the child's education. They contribute only where the family is unable to afford the costs of a higher education. 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.

Then lay out all 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. Emphasize that their refusal to help doesn't get you any more aid. Remind them that they're the only people you can turn to for help.

If your parents don't want to pay because of a bad relationship with you, try reminding them that they'll be really proud of you when you do graduate. Remind them that even if they hate you, your future is at stake, and not graduating from college will have serious consequences for you. Remind them that one day you hope to get married and have children, and that by refusing to pay for your education, they are not only hurting you, but their future grandchildren.

What to do if your stepfather or stepmother refuses to file forms or provide support.
Remind them that the federal government counts their income and assets, regardless of their refusal, and that by marrying your mother or father, they assumed responsibility for you. 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 continue to refuse to 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.

Some More Tips

Here are a few additional suggestions:

  • Visit the financial aid office and schedule an appointment to talk with a financial aid administrator. They can evaluate your situation and advise you of your options. Even if they can't declare you an independent student, at least they can help by talking to your parents. Sometimes it helps to have a third party interceding on your behalf. They may be able to find some emergency loan funds for you, to help you on a temporary basis.

  • If your parents filed the FAFSA, you are eligible for the unsubsidized Stafford Loan, even if you don't qualify for need-based aid.

  • Search for merit aid. There are several large scholarship databases on FinAid that you can search for free, and countless smaller databases. If you're talented and lucky, maybe you'll win a merit scholarship.

  • Consider enrolling in (or transferring to) a lower priced school.

  • Get a job and earn money until you turn 24, when you automatically become an independent student, and then finish your college education. (When you apply for financial aid, send a letter to the school summarizing your situation, and tell them that you expect a decrease in your income during the school year because you will no longer be working. They can then adjust your financial aid package to reflect estimated income instead of prior year tax income.)

  • If your parents are religious, quote scripture at them. There are numerous passages in the bible which state that it is the parents responsibility to teach their children a trade. Examples include: "A father is obligated to do the following for his son: ... and to teach him a trade." (Kiddushin 29a-30a); "Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a); and "Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6). In the modern era, teaching your children a trade means paying for a college education.

  • If you are Amish and have been shunned or banished because of your desire to seek an education and as a result no longer have any contact with your family, provide a signed statement to this effect to the financial aid administrator. Some financial aid administrators will do a dependency status override in this case. (Note that you may also run into trouble because of the requirements to register for Selective Service.)

  • Hire an attorney and petition the court to have your parents' parental rights terminated, on the grounds that they are refusing to provide for your support. (The courts typically require that the parent have ceased all support and contact with the child for at least a year before they will consider such an abandonment case. Abandonment is one of the situations in which the school can grant a dependency override.)

  • Look at the various tax benefits for education, such as the Hope Scholarship and student loan interest deduction. These benefits are available to the taxpayer who pays the educational expenses, and so will be available to you. Please note, however, that some of these benefits require that you not be claimed as an exemption on someone else's tax return.

  • Consider some of the innovative programs offered by, including their education investments and no-cosigner private education loans.
Finally, write a letter to Congress and tell them about your story. If Congress were aware of how many students like you fall through the cracks, they might be willing to make some modifications in the Higher Education Act. For example, suggest to them that they increase the loan limits on the unsubsidized Stafford loan so that students with parents who refuse to help can at least get the financing necessary to pay for school.

The Role of the Financial Aid Administrator

Financial aid administrators hate to be placed in the middle in situations like these. In most cases the aid administrator will carefully apply the rules, and will not make an exception unless there is documented evidence that warrants the change.

Independent Student Status

The Federal requirements for independent student status changed in 1992. Since then, the student must satisfy at least one of the following criteria to be considered independent:

  • The student is 24 year of age or older by December 31 of the award year.
  • The student is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until the student reached the age of 18.
  • The student is a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.
  • The student is a graduate or professional student.
  • The student is married.
  • The student has legal dependents other than a spouse. (Dependent means receiving more than half the individual's support from the student.)
If the student doesn't satisfy any of these requirements, then the student is automatically a dependent student.

(Before 1992, one could become independent if the parents didn't claim the student as an exemption on their tax returns for two years and the student provided evidence that he or she is self supporting. This is the old definition, and is no longer valid.)

The only criterion listed above which is under the student's control is marriage. However, students who are contemplating married should be aware of the following:

  • What counts is the student's marital status as of the date he or she submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If the student gets married after that date, he or she will not be considered independent until the subsequent year. Federal law specifically prohibits schools from changing a student's marital status mid-year.

  • Changing the student's status to independent through marriage might not increase eligibility for financial aid. A married student is no longer required to provide financial information for his/her parents. Instead, the married student must provide financial information for his/her spouse. If the spouse is wealthier than the student's parents, this may result in a decrease in financial aid eligibility.

Financial aid administrators do have the authority to override a student's default dependency determination, but only in unusual circumstances and with proper documentation. Students who are faced with obstinate parents should talk to the financial aid administrator at their school, but be prepared for the aid administrator to turn them down. Parents refusing to pay does not constitute an unusual circumstance.

The financial aid administrator would love to be able to help every student, but they know that if they don't have sufficient justification for using professional judgment, they will be penalized for it at the next audit. Moreover, if the aid administrator made a practice of declaring students independent, many more parents would start refusing to pay.

Some of the more common situations in which financial aid administrators may be willing to override the dependency determination include:

  • Parents incarcerated or presumed dead.

  • Student was sexually or physically abused by the parents or can document a hostile or neglectful relationship with his/her parents. The student will need to provide copies of protection from abuse orders, court documents, social worker reports, doctor reports, police records, and letters from clergy, as appropriate.

  • Parents cannot be located. For example, a student who emigrated to the US without his/her parents, became a US citizen, and has not been able to contact his/her parents (or even know whether they are still alive).

  • Student legally adopted by their current guardian.

The financial aid administrator will want the student to provide a signed statement describing the unusual circumstances. The financial aid administrator will also want evidence that the student is genuinely self-supporting, such as copies of tax returns and pay stubbs. (Refusing to provide this information will result in a denial of the request for a change in dependency status.) If the student does not demonstrate an income that is sufficient to cover basic needs, the aid administrator will become suspicious and require additional documentation. (If the student's earnings aren't even close to the poverty line, they're going to want a lot of documentation of how the student is physically able to live.) They will also be suspicious if the student is still living at home or if the student stopped living at home recently. They will want to see copies of cancelled rent checks. (Having the student pay rent to the parents will not help.) The aid administrator will want all statements confirmed by third-party documentation.

Given this documentation, the financial aid administrator will determine whether or not the student is independent. The financial aid administrator's decision is final, and is not subject to appeal. Putting pressure on the school administration or calling the US Department of Education will have no effect, other than to irritate the financial aid administrator.

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."

Most students would get more financial aid if their parents complete the FAFSA or if the student is granted a dependency override. But perhaps this provision will allow some students to complete their education despite their parents refusal to help.


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