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Special Circumstances: Where Do I Fit into the Financial Aid Mix?

The financial aid process is tough enough to figure out even when the instructions are right in front of you. What's even more frustrating, however, is when none of the directions seem to apply to you. Luckily, Kalman A. Chaney, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke (Princeton Review, 2000), provides the answers to all your specific questions.

What if my parents are divorced?
The general rule is whichever parent you live with during the year prior to applying for financial aid is the 'custodial parent.' The majority of colleges will never ask to see the income or assets of noncustodial parents. In other words, your financial need will only be based on how much money can be contributed to your college education by you and the parent you live with.

However, keep in mind: A stepparent residing with your parent, will be treated as if he/she were the natural parent.

Schools that do require that the noncustodial parent supply information will send a special form for them to fill out. Only send the form if the school absolutely requires it; some only want it if the divorce happened very recently.

How do I know if I'm an independent student or not?
Colleges and universities assume you're dependent (a.k.a. they require your parent's financial information) unless you meet one of the following criteria:

* You are 24-years-old or older.
* You are a veteran.
* You are an orphan.
* You have children or dependents who live with you.
* You are a graduate or professional school student.
* You are married.

If you are none of those things, regardless of how much money your parents are willing to invest in your education, you still have to supply their information.

What if one of my parents loses their job after I've already accepted my financial aid package?
Although financial need information is based on what you and your parents earned last year, schools do take special circumstances into consideration. The easiest way to explain your situation is to write the financial aid officers of each choice school a letter explaining what happened along with some form of documentation. Unfortunately, in most cases, your financial aid package may not be revised until the second semester.

What if someone in my family has an accident or my home is robbed?
Many schools have emergency aid funds specifically designated for unique circumstances in which students' income or assets are unexpectedly depleted. Again, you must write a letter to the financial aid officer immediately and hope for the best.

Does being an early decision applicant affect my chances of financial aid?
If you have a fairly high financial need, applying early decision could be very risky. Essentially, you would be committing to a school before ever seeing how much money they can offer you. And, because you've already signed on the dotted line, most colleges and universities will do little to improve your aid package after the fact. One alternative may be to apply as an early action applicant. This means that you can still apply to other comparable schools and use them as bargaining leverage later.


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