Declare independence (if you can)
If you still live with your parents and they claim you as a dependent on their tax returns, your aid package will be calculated as if they were contributing, even if they aren't, explains James Kinney, a certified college planning specialist and founder of Financial Pathway Advisors LLC in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Schools and the government are of the opinion that college costs are part of the parents' responsibility, and if the parents don't want to step up, then too bad, says Kinney. "Schools set a high bar for undergraduates attempting to be declared independent. 'My parents don't want to pay' does not qualify you for independent status."
However, the financial aid office does have the power to override a student's dependency status and adjust the student's financial aid package accordingly, but only under special circumstances, says Elaine Solinga, director of financial aid services at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. These include situations where parents have been removed from a home or if there's a drug or alcohol problem at home that's making it unsafe for a student to maintain a connection to their parents.
If the student is living at home and they're not paying any living expenses, then they really can't get a dependency override, says Solinga. "But if they're living outside the home, they would need to document why the parent contribution should be waived."
That documentation may include letters from social workers, attorneys, high school guidance counselors, relatives or caregivers who can attest to the situation, Solinga says. According to the financial aid site FinAid.org, approximately 2 percent of undergraduates receive dependency overrides.
If you're 24 years old, married, a veteran, in foster care, homeless, a ward of the state, a legally emancipated minor or have dependents yourself, the federal government already considers you financially independent of your parents and will calculate your aid package based on your own income and assets.
Get a professional judgment
Although dependency overrides are rare, financial aid offices can adjust award packages when sudden financial changes, such as a job loss, a death in the family, disability, divorce or unusually high medical bills, prevent parents from contributing to college costs. If a student knows that their family's financial situation is going to be radically different from one year to the next, their best bet is to request a "professional judgment," which allows a college aid office to review a student's award package in light of new information, says Clarke Paine, director of financial aid for Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Any adjustments to the student's aid package are at the school's discretion.
To get an award adjustment, students will need to document their situation. "Each school is going to have its own set of criteria," Paine says. "(A student) could give the exact same details to two different schools, and one says yes and the other says no. A double bonus to alerting the aid office about your situation is that they also may be able to direct you to non-need-based scholarships and other awards you may not have known about otherwise.
If you're not eligible for independent status or a professional judgment, think about ways you can try to lower your overall college costs.
"Think about attending a less expensive college such as a community college or an in-state college for the first two years and then think about transferring," she says. "Students can perhaps go to college part time and work to help pay for some of these expenses rather than borrowing."
Students can also look to reduce their costs by investigating tuition waivers, attending a school that doesn't charge tuition, landing a job that provides tuition reimbursement or by enrolling in the military or ROTC campus program. You can also check out "merit-based" scholarships and grants that aren't awarded based on need, and therefore won't be impacted by whether your parents contribute to your college education. Your school's financial aid office, your state and MeritAid.com are three great places to begin the hunt. Local clubs you've joined, social organizations, former employers and professional associations in your field of study can be rich resources, too.
You can ask your school about working off the tuition. Many institutions also offer paid fellowships, teaching assistantships and research positions that are doled out based on academic performance.
Lastly, sites like GoFundMe.com offer students a way to reach out through social media to try to have people, including other family and friends, help fund their education if their parents can't, or won't.
Other loans out there
Even if you can't get access to loans from the federal government, other loans are oh-so-available to students, including person-to-person, or P2P lending sites. Just know that if you have to take on debt, be mindful of how much you borrow, says Kinney.
"Even if they're a dependent student and they're getting no other financial aid at all because maybe their parents' income is too high or they have too many assets ... they always have unsubsidized Stafford loans available -- but they cap out for undergraduates, if you add them all together, at $31,000," Kinney says. "I would encourage people to try as best they can to live within that and try not to borrow more. If you need to borrow more, you're into private loans, and private loans do not have all the nice features that federal loans do."