Financial Aid for Students with Unmarried Parents

Kids of divorced or unmarried parents are often in a lurch when it comes to financial aid, particularly if one parent is less than willing either to pay or to disclose financial information. Most private colleges and universities, even those with outstanding financial aid policies like Yale and Amherst, require that both parents submit financial information in order for the student to receive a financial aid award. For students who have a parent with whom they don’t have much contact but who still need financial aid, this can cause real problems.

Take, for example, Katie. Katie is a talented high school senior who is applying to top colleges that give excellent financial aid. She knows that she needs financial aid given that her mom makes a salary of only $50,000 per year for family of 4. Her parents divorced about 5 years ago and her dad has really been out of the picture. Katie sees her father maybe once a year and he doesn’t contribute much of anything financially.

Now that Katie is applying for financial aid, she realizes she needs to report both of her parents’ incomes because the colleges she is applying to determine financial need based on both of your parents’ ability to pay – custodial and non-custodial.

Katie had a difficult enough time just tracking down her dad to talk about the financial aid process. When she did talk to him, he refused to fill out any of his financial information. She couldn’t figure out why – she assumed he didn’t make much money, but there wasn’t anything Katie could do. She wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid at any of the colleges to which she was applying. Needless to say, Katie was devastated.

Most colleges will allow students to petition for a non-custodial financial aid form waiver. But these are only granted in extenuating circumstances, for example if a child has not had any support from the non-custodial parent for several years. And even for these, students must submit proof of the circumstances.

For many children of unmarried parents like Katie, this just isn’t possible. Katie did see her father once in a while and we would sometimes help out with field trip fees or other minor expenses. But he did not make himself a part of her or any of her siblings lives.

But, what Katie didn’t know was that she still had a lot of options. Even when a student have a non-custodial parent who won’t contribute financially, they still have some excellent options that will allow them to attend college:

File for a Non-Custodial Waiver Nearly every college will make exceptions to their requirements that both parents need to submit financial information for financial aid. Students with extenuating circumstances regarding their family circumstances are eligible to apply and are often granted waivers as well. These forms can be found on individual colleges’ websites. Bear in mind that requests are often denied so don’t count on the fact that you will certainly get waivers. You might, but you might not.

Apply to Colleges That Don’t Require Non-Custodial Information In addition to filing for financial waivers, students should consider applying to colleges that don’t require students to supply custodial and non-custodial financial information. Colleges that require only the FAFSA to receive financial aid, request only the custodial parent’s financial information (though some schools have their own supplementary forms that may require non-custodial financial information).

In addition, number of colleges that require the CSS Profile form in addition to the FAFSA have excellent financial aid policies. Though most require students to submit noncustodial information, there are a number that don’t. Below is just a sample of schools that either require only the FAFSA or don’t require the non-custodial parent form for the CSS Profile:

Click here for a full list of colleges that require the CSS Profile but do not require non-custodial information. Colleges that are not included on this list use the FAFSA only. Colleges can change their policies without notice so be sure to check with each college’s financial aid office to confirm their policies.

Apply to Financial Safety Schools Apply to schools where you know you can pay even without financial aid and scholarships. For some students who have some financial means, this could be their state college. For other students it may mean looking at colleges that give guaranteed scholarships that will bring down the total cost of attendance to a price they know their family can afford.

Apply to Schools Where You Can Get Scholarships Apply to schools where you are in the top 25% of applicants based on GPA and SAT scores. Schools that offer merit aid are likely to give these highly qualified applicants big scholarships even if they aren’t guaranteed.

Keep in mind, scholarships and financial aid are never a guarantee at any college, even those that meet 100% of demonstrated need. Colleges might include large amounts of loans or say a family can pay more than the family thinks they can. The best thing a student in a situation like Katie’s can do is apply to a wide variety of schools (including at least one financial safety). Katie could apply to a few schools that offer the possibility of her obtaining a non-custodial waiver, but the bulk of the schools she’s applied to either don’t require non-custodial information or have merit scholarship options that Katie knows she is qualified for. After that, Katie must wait, see, and then compare.

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