Today is February 1. If you live in the US, you should have all of your paperwork ready to file your taxes. You have no excuse for not applying for financial aid today.
Start your FAFSA application right now.
One of the worst things about college for any student–but especially for estranged adults–is paying for school. When I started Orphan Survival Guide, I wrote that I had Googled “how do orphans pay for college?” and found no useful answers, which is why I started the blog in the first place.
This post has been over a year in the making. I hope it answers that question.
Step 1: Gather Documentation
If you were in the foster system or your parents died, this process is a little easier. But if you’re on no-contact or estranged from living parents, FAFSA and almost all colleges consider your parents responsible for your education and force you to include their tax information even if you can’t get it.
This process has added some loopholes in the last couple of years, but is still incredibly difficult to appeal a financial aid decision based on lack of parental information. Remember, the financial aid office thinks you’re lying to get more aid, so arm yourself with as much proof as you can.
Here are some of the things that may help you win an appeal:
- files from social services
- police records
- hospital and medical records
- documentation from homeless or abuse shelters
- social worker or therapist testimonials
- guidance counselor or teacher testimonials
- letters from friends’ parents
- bank statements
- pay stubs and personal tax forms
- rent and utilities bills
- emails, blogs, social media posts, text messages, and any other communication documenting the abuse or estrangement as it happened
Basically, establish a timeline and create a paper trail proving your independence to present during your appeal. You will also need a personal statement detailing why you are appealing your aid–this should be explicitly detailed and reference all of the documentation you will present. Don’t be shy when it comes to length or oversharing: you want to use everything you have to convince them you’re serious about going to school on your own.
This is a step you’ll probably have to revisit over and over again, so get a cheap accordion file to keep everything organized and readily accessible.
Step 2: File Your FAFSA
Your first step in the financial aid process is to file your FAFSA–the Free Application for Federal Student Aid–at the official FAFSA website.
This may sound silly, but the emphasis is on free. This is a free form. You should never ever have to pay for it. There are predatory sites out there pretending to be the real FAFSA site that charge you $80 to file this free government form.
You can file this even before you file your taxes, using estimated income or your income from the prior year. This means that if you submit your initial FAFSA on January 1, but update it on February 1, you still keep your place in line for the highly-sought-after aid like Pell Grants and Work Study (which runs out within weeks at some schools).
When you file your FAFSA, send it to every college you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied there yet. It’s free and you want to cast a wide net.
Step 3: Apply To MANY Schools
Some schools are more sympathetic than others, and some financial aid offices are better equipped. Apply to a lot of schools. Community colleges, state universities, private colleges. Have a good variety because you never know which ones will work with you.
In many cases, if you talk to the admissions or financial aid director before you apply, you can have your application fee waived, so be sure to reach out to people personally before you even submit your application.
Step 4: Appeal for Special Circumstances
I’ve talked to dozens of estranged adult students and read countless more stories of their struggles to go to college. Very few of them have won their appeal. But it’s still worth trying.
Keep your expectations low and cast a wide net when it comes to colleges. Your first choice may not be the one to give you money. You might have to settle for the fifth or sixth choice.
Every college’s appeals process is different, but the documentation I had you put together above is your key to winning an appeal. Talk to the financial aid director–not counselors–and discuss the likelihood of your appeal success.
In most cases, they simply won’t believe or help you. Some schools will do the work to get you set up with scholarships and grants. Some will do the bare minimum and offer you an unsubsidized federal loan. But most will just tell you to reconcile with your parents and get them to sign your FAFSA. Once you reach that point with a school, move on to another one. It’s not worth the headaches.
Your dream school would do whatever it takes to help you, so if a school is telling you they can’t give you any money, they’re not your dream school.
Step 5: Bookmark Many Scholarship Search Engines
Scholarship search engines are a dime a dozen, and most of them have similar databases of scholarships. Some of them, however, are scams.
Never pay to apply for a scholarship (this includes signing up for the Scholly app, which is a waste of money). Never give out your social security number or credit card information in a scholarship application. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Here are 10 scholarship search engines that are legit. And free.
- College Board Big Future Scholarship Search
- Scholarship America
- Student Scholarship Search
Learn which scholarships are worth the time and effort of applying. A lot of scholarship application advice says to apply to as many as you can because you never know which ones you might win, but I don’t think spending hours writing a unique essay for a million-to-one chance at a $500 award is worth it when I could spend that time working and knowing for sure I will be paid.
Keep in mind that many scholarships have stipulations beyond financial need or grades. At my state university, all scholarships will be revoked if you drop below full-time status. You can keep your grants and loans, but you lose all scholarships if you go to school part-time.
Always read the fine print when you’re given an award so you know what’s expected of you.
More Places to Find Scholarships, Grants, and Other Financial Aid
You should also check out your local and federal grants, which can be easier to win than scholarships because fewer people know about them. Check out the USDOE State Grant Search to see what’s available for your school and state.
Your school’s financial aid office should have a list of all the scholarships available at school. Dig around their website for it or go in to the office to ask for a list. But keep in mind that they might be reluctant to give you that information–a lot of schools or staff get kickbacks if they push you towards a certain kind of payment scheme (usually private loans).
Talk to the department head for your major to find out what scholarships are available for people studying whatever it is you’re going to school for this year. If you’re taking gen eds or electives in other departments, check out what’s available from them too. A lot of the good scholarships I’ve won were through my major, not through the financial aid office, because no one knows about them and they have very little competition.
My Financial Aid History
Here are my personal experiences with financial aid:
- at 18, my appeal was rejected 8 times and I was told to get married or have a kid if I wanted to apply as independent
- at 18, the financial aid office refused to apply my one private scholarship because I wasn’t registered full-time
- at 25, I maxed out scholarships and federal loans and asked where to find institutional scholarships and grants. Seton Hill University’s financial aid director told me, “Well there are always private loans!”
- at 26, The University of Iowa financial aid “counselor” told me that “the system” “forgot” to apply a transfer scholarship to my package, but there was “no way” they could apply it the next year
- at 27, I interviewed the director of financial aid for The University of Iowa about students applying as independent and was told students lie about being estranged to get more aid and that students should try harder to reconcile with their parents
Financial aid offices think that students will lie about everything to get more money–but in a (not-so-)surprising twist, the financial aid staff are the ones who openly lie to students and hide information from you, then blame you for not knowing how or where to find actual aid.
They hold your fate in their hands like a small bird. So, they’re a necessary evil. Unfortunately.
My biggest piece of advice is to go into the financial aid process assuming that the paid staff is out to screw you over. Because they probably are. Arm yourself with the right information, resources, and questions, and you might just get somewhere on your own.