Although students come from all sorts of backgrounds, the process of applying and qualifying for student loans is somewhat one-size-fits-all, especially for undergraduate students.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to calculate a student’s eligibility for loans and other funding from the government’s Federal Student Aid program, assumes that a student’s parents are present, willing to share financial information, and contributing to their child’s postsecondary education. The FAFSA uses parents’ income information to determine the student’s Student Aid Index (formerly the Expected Family Contribution), impacting the amount of financial aid students receive.

However, there are many instances where students’ parents aren’t present or willing to provide financial information for the FAFSA. Students in these situations can still borrow loans to pay for school, but the application process requires extra steps. This article will provide an overview of how to access student loans without parents, as well as information about other ways to pay for school and insight from independent college counselor Dana Marvin.

What is a Student Loan?

Student loans are money borrowed for tuition and other costs associated with a post-secondary degree or certificate program that must be repaid with interest. There are two types of student loans — federal and private. Typically, professionals recommend taking advantage of federal loan opportunities over private loans whenever possible.

Federal student loans

With federal student loans, students and their families borrow money from the government through the Federal Student Aid program. Congress sets the terms and conditions for federal student loans, including interest rates and repayment options, intending to make them more affordable and accessible. Students apply for federal student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Applicants for federal student aid have several funding options available. Each individual may be eligible for different types of aid, so reviewing the chart below will provide insight into what opportunities each student may be eligible to receive.

Financial Aid Type Eligible Students Maximum Amount Repayment Details
Direct Subsidized LoansNeed-based loans: the federal government pays interest while students are enrolled in school at least half-time, during a 6-month grace period after graduation, and if loans are in a period of deferment. Undergraduate $23,000 total Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options are available.
Direct Unsubsidized LoansNeed-based loans; students are responsible for paying interest during all periods Undergraduate Graduate Undergraduate: $34,500 total

Graduate: $138,500 (includes loans borrowed for undergraduate study)

Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options are available.
Parent PLUS LoanAvailable to biological or adoptive (and in some cases stepparents) of dependent undergraduate students enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Undergraduate The cost of attendance at the school their child will attend minus any other financial assistance received. Repayment begins after the loan is disbursed unless a deferment is requested.
Grad PLUS LoanAvailable to graduate or professional students enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school in a program leading to a graduate or professional degree or certificate. Graduate The cost of attendance (determined by the school) minus any other financial assistance received. Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment.
Pell GrantStudents must display exceptional financial need and haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree Undergraduate $7,395 (2023-24 academic year) It doesn’t have to be repaid (except in certain circumstances).
TEACH GrantProvides grants to students who are completing or plan to complete coursework needed to begin a career in teaching. Undergraduate

Graduate

$4,000 per year It doesn’t need to be repaid as long as students complete their teaching service obligation.
Work-StudyPart-time on-campus and off-campus employment opportunities for which students receive hourly wages or a salary paid by the Federal Work-Study program. Undergraduate

Graduate

Varies; students are paid at least the federal minimum wage. It doesn’t need to be repaid.

Private education loans

Private companies like banks, credit unions, and state-affiliated organizations offer private student loans. Some of the biggest private lenders in the U.S. include Sallie Mae, SoFi, and Ascent. In this case, each company sets its interest rates and repayment terms based on current market rates and personal credit. Each lender has its own application process and eligibility criteria.

When considering federal and private loans, Marvin says, “If you qualify for federal loans, take those before looking into private loans. Qualification for these loans doesn’t depend on credit score, and there are income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs students can explore. If you need additional funds and are considering private loans, make sure to compare and contrast all of your options before making the commitment.”

How to Apply for Student Loans

As mentioned above, students who want to apply for federal student loans must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine a student’s eligibility for student loans and other forms of federal financial aid. The application is available online and is always free to submit. Students should be wary of scams that ask for payment to complete or submit the application, such as Fafsa.com.

Students must file a FAFSA annually to be considered for financial aid for the upcoming academic year. Many schools use information from the FAFSA to assess students for institutional support, such as scholarships and grants. Changes in family income can affect the amount of aid a student receives in a given academic year. Students can submit their FAFSA results to schools even if they haven’t applied or been admitted yet. Students can add up to 20 colleges to their FAFSA application at a time. They can also return to the application after submitting it to add more schools, if necessary.

Dependency status

One of the key sections of the FAFSA is parent income information, including tax returns. The FAFSA asks for this information because the federal student aid program is based on the premise that undergraduate students are dependents and will have parental support in paying for their education. Assessing their income and assets allows the student aid program to estimate how much families will contribute to their children’s education.

Students who are not dependents, or categorized as independent, will enter their own income information on the FAFSA and don’t need to include any parental income information.

Therefore, the first step in applying for federal student aid is determining your dependency status.

Students are considered independent if any of the following apply to them:

  • At least 24 years old
  • Legally married
  • A graduate or professional student
  • A veteran or current member of the Armed Forces
  • An orphan
  • A ward of the court
  • Supporting legal dependents other than a spouse
  • An emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk of being homeless

If you are an independent student, you won’t need any information from your parents to complete your FAFSA, although you can read on for more information about non-loan options for paying for school. If none of these criteria apply to a student, they are considered dependent, even if their parents don’t provide college financial support.

If you have access to your parents’ information

If your parents aren’t contributing to your education, find out if they will still provide you with their income information. The main information needed is their W2 and tax return from the previous year, and you will also need their permission and information to create a FSA ID in their name. This information will make it easier to complete the FAFSA, as it accounts for a large portion of the application. You can follow standard procedures for completing and submitting the FAFSA.

You will receive a Student Aid Index (SAI) rating based on an expected contribution from your family. However, you and your family aren’t required to make any out-of-pocket contributions to your education. Any gaps between federal aid and total attendance costs can be covered by scholarships, grants, fellowships, or other financial resources.

Eligible students can take out Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans without parental involvement. The federal loan that does require parent involvement is the PLUS Loan, as parents would be taking that money out in their own name, not the student’s name. If you’re borrowing a loan on your own, carefully review all the loan terms and ensure you understand all the implications of borrowing this money.

Because students must file a new FAFSA each academic year to be considered for federal student aid, if your situation changes, you can update your information to reflect the new circumstances.

If you don’t have access to your parents’ information

Apply for a dependency override

The FAFSA allows dependent students to apply for a dependency override if they have special circumstances, such as neglectful, abusive, incarcerated, or otherwise absent parents. Individual school’s financial aid offices have the discretion to grant dependency overrides. Dependency overrides are granted on a case-by-case basis and are not guaranteed, but you should still apply if you believe your circumstances warrant it. Here’s how to pursue a dependency override:

  • Step 1: Complete the FAFSA. When asked if you can provide information about your parents, indicate that you have special circumstances and cannot provide this information. Submit the FAFSA. It will be considered incomplete without your parents’ information and won’t be processed.
  • Step 2: Contact the financial aid office at the school or schools you are applying to. Notify them that you’re requesting a dependency override and determine the next steps. Each school may have its own protocol, but this process typically involves providing documentation of the circumstances that prevent the parent from assisting the student. Documentation can come from the parents or a third party, such as a counselor, teacher, cleric, or court.

Based on this documentation, the school’s financial aid office will determine whether to grant you a dependency override. If granted the override, you will be considered an independent student and can use your financial information to determine your SAI.

If your school determines you’re not eligible for a dependency override, your FAFSA will be processed without an EFC, and the only federal student loans you’ll be eligible for are direct unsubsidized loans, which are not based on financial need. Each school can determine whether to award you an unsubsidized loan and how much you can borrow.

Please note: If you need to apply for a dependency override, starting the process as early as possible is important. Give yourself time to collect and submit the necessary documentation, and give your school time to review your case. If you plan on starting school in the fall term, you should start the process no later than March. Also, your school’s decision on your dependency status is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.

Find an alternative cosigner for private student loans

If you are ineligible for federal student loans, or the amount you receive does not cover all of your educational expenses, you can apply for private student loans from banks, credit unions, and other lending institutions. However, you will likely need a cosigner to obtain these loans unless you have a good credit history.

A cosigner is an individual who signs on to be responsible for the repayment of a loan. For lenders, this is an added guarantee that they will recoup the money they’re lending, especially if the borrower has little or no credit history or a poor credit history.

For many students, a parent will act as a cosigner for a loan, but a cosigner can be anyone with a good credit score, is trusted by the student, and is willing to take on the obligation of paying back the loan if the student cannot.

If your parents are unable or unwilling to cosign a loan, consider alternatives, including siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, a significant other, or close friends. Be sure to choose someone with good credit because this will increase your chances of being approved for a loan with more favorable interest and repayment terms. Many private lenders may offer a soft credit pull option, which allows the potential cosigner to have their financial information and credit score pulled by the lender to see if they are eligible to cosign the loan without it impacting their credit. This should also be a person you trust and who fully understands and agrees to share the obligation to repay your debt.

Research student loans that don’t require a cosigner

There are a few private student loan options that don’t require a cosigner, although there may be other restrictions on who is eligible for these loans, including demonstrating a good credit history and being at a particular stage in your undergraduate education. Taking on a student loan without a cosigner is also a financial risk that requires careful consideration. Because there is no one else’s name on the loan, you bear the sole responsibility for repaying it. It is also important to note that student loans that do not require a cosigner often have a higher interest rate, stricter pay-back rules and penalties, or a combination of both.

Establish a good credit history and build up an independent income before attending school

Although you may be eager to start your college education immediately after high school, if you don’t have parental support and are ineligible for loans because you don’t have a cosigner or an established credit history, your best option may be to delay attending college for some time. While it may seem counterintuitive to success, there are several benefits to joining the workforce first:

  • You can earn and save money that you can put toward your education.
  • You will have an opportunity to establish a credit history, enabling you to apply for private student loans without a cosigner.
  • You may be able to find a job that will help you pay for your college education through tuition remission or reimbursement.
  • You may be able to start taking classes part-time or online, reducing the number of classes you will need to complete when you enroll in school full-time.

Non-Loan Options for Paying for School

Out-of-pocket

Students who are paying some or all of their tuition out of pocket should find out if their school offers payment plans. With this arrangement, students can pay their tuition over time throughout the term instead of in one lump sum at the term’s start. Many schools also offer discounted tuition for students who are veterans or activity-duty service members and accept GI Bill benefits to cover tuition expenses.

Scholarships

Scholarships are considered ‘gift aid,’ or money for school that doesn’t have to be repaid. Schools and organizations award scholarships based on various criteria, including financial need, academic achievement, athletics and extracurriculars, or demographics. The monetary value of scholarships varies widely, with some scholarships covering full tuition and other expenses. Students generally must submit the FAFSA to be considered for need-based scholarships. Other sources for scholarships besides schools include professional development organizations, non-profits, scholarship foundations, religious and community groups, and employers. Reputable sites for students to search for scholarships that they are eligible for include Fastweb, ScholarshipOwl, and Going Merry.

Grants

Grants are primarily awarded based on financial need and, like scholarships, don’t need to be repaid. The federal financial aid program offers two types of grants — the Pell Grant for undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and the TEACH Grant for students who pursue a teaching degree and position. Students can also inquire with their schools to determine if they offer grants.

Fellowships and assistantships

Fellowships and assistantships are typically available to master’s and doctoral students, although some schools may offer this type of support to undergraduates. Students typically apply for fellowships from schools or outside organizations to fund their research or advanced studies. They may or may not have work requirements attached to them. An assistantship is when a student is paid a stipend in exchange for labor, such as being a teaching or lab assistant. Students don’t have to repay money they receive through fellowships or assistantships.

Employer tuition assistance benefits

Many companies offer tuition assistance benefits to employees who are enrolled in college courses. Policies vary by company, but these programs typically work by reimbursing students for some or all of their tuition after they complete a course or program. Students planning on working while they complete their degree should check with their employer to see if this option is available.

Learn More About Financial Aid

Visit these resources for further information about preparing financially for college, completing the FAFSA, and borrowing money to pay for your education.

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