This Little-Known Fact About FAFSA Might Change Your Life



I’m sure many can agree that the FAFSA application is not easy to navigate. Going into the chaotic world of financial aid, I had no clue what was going on. I felt like I was on my own since my parents didn’t know how to help and I was too afraid to reach out to other resources. I had also tried applying to various scholarships online and never heard back from any of them. I decided that instead of using up my time and energy on financial aid applications, I would work to save up money and pay out of pocket for community college classes. 

I remember that when I tried applying to FAFSA once during my time at community college, I had multiple breakdowns during the application process. The questions were confusing and frustrating, and it required so much information from my parents even though I was the one paying for my college expenses. I was required to include their tax information which FAFSA used to calculate the “Expected Family Contribution” or EFC number. Now at first, I had no idea what this meant. Turns out, this number determines the amount of money that your parents are “expected” to contribute to your college expenses. This was upsetting because the EFC number ended up determining that my parents should have the money to pay all my educational needs and that I did not qualify for any financial aid other than some small loans. The reality was that my parents did not have the financial ability to help with my tuition. They were dealing with multiple financial hardships that FAFSA did not ask about, like big medical bills, debt, and many other monthly expenses. Although I was offered some loans, I was determined to do anything to avoid going into debt. 

So my decision remained the same. I would continue to take one or two classes at a time as I saved up from my part-time retail job. I took it slow, not only because of financial obstacles, but also because I didn’t want to rush my time in school. I still didn’t know what I wanted to major in, so I tried out different classes until I found what I liked. Eventually, I graduated with my Associate’s Degree and found out that my credits could transfer to UW Bothell for a major in Media and Communication Studies, and I could start there as a junior. When I found out the cost of tuition, my jaw dropped to the floor. It cost almost three times the amount of tuition at my previous community college! I knew that no matter how much I worked and saved, there was no way I could afford to pay out of pocket. This time, I needed financial assistance. So I applied for FAFSA, and like last time, it made me input my parent’s tax information. Once again, I didn’t qualify for any grants or scholarships, but they did offer some loans. I ultimately accepted the loans and waited until next year to apply again.

Eventually, I found out that once I turned 24, I was considered independent and was no longer required to include my parent’s info in my application. I was turning 24 before the next school year (which happened to be my senior year), and in order to make sure I had good chances of getting some grants, I applied on the day the application opened. My income was very low because I was working part time, which meant that I qualified for multiple grants. I was incredibly happy and grateful when I got word that my last year of college was going to be completely covered! This also gave me the chance to pay off the loans that I had accumulated over the last year. Now, I am projected to graduate with my Bachelor’s debt-free. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t turned 24, so taking my time was worth it in the end!

To learn more information about how to file FAFSA as an independent student, check out this article by Farran Powell and Emma Kerr. There are some rare cases where students can file as independent before the age of 24, but it’s under very limited circumstances.

Now that I’ve explained my personal history with financial aid, let’s go over the main points I learned:

·   If you are in a similar situation like mine, and are able to take your time in higher education, I recommend going slow until you turn 24. This may not work for everyone, but it’s worth considering.

·   Never be afraid to ask for help from resources at your school, especially as a first-generation student. I wish I had asked because I’ll never know how much financial help I could have received if I had done so. Check with your school’s financial aid office for support.

·   Getting your degree does not have to be a race! I can’t tell you how many times I felt bad because I wasn’t at the same pace as many of my friends and peers, but graduating debt-free (this June 2021), in a major that I truly enjoy, makes it totally worth going at my own pace. Everybody’s college journey is going to be different.

I know that not everyone will be able to relate to this situation, but I’m hoping my story can help at least one person who is trying to navigate their way through college finances. If you are experiencing a circumstance like mine, I hope you can take this advice and apply it to your own situation!