Federal financial aid eligibility for students who are considered dependents is largely determined using parental income and other asset information.
For students who are on their own from a young age and struggle to keep a roof over their heads much less pay for college, the process of qualifying for aid can be especially daunting.
Meet Jessie Padgett
About five years ago, Jessie Padgett applied for financial aid at Valencia College under such unusual circumstances after leaving her parents’ house at age 17 and finishing high school in a different county.
“I was technically homeless,” said Jessie, who was born and grew up in Orange County but graduated from Harmony High School in Osceola County. According to Federal Student Aid, a student is considered homeless “if he or she lacks fixed, regular, and adequate housing.”
Upon leaving her parents’ home, Jessie was unemployed and says she alternated between staying in friends’ houses and with her father’s former wife in Osceola. It was during her senior year at Harmony High that Jessie realized she was interested in continuing her education beyond high school.
“I was speaking with a counselor, and she asked me if I planned to continue my education, which right there on the spot I realized I did want to,” she said. “She then told me about Valencia and the FAFSA.”
Federal Student Aid and Homeless Youth
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows students to find out how much federal aid they can use to attend college. However, about one third of all FAFSA filers — and 50% of low-income filers — each year are selected for verification, a federal audit of submitted FAFSAs.
With help from her counselor, Jessie applied to college at Valencia and submitted a FAFSA. Students who fill out the FAFSA are asked if they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and unaccompanied (by their parents).
According to the most recent #RealCollege Survey — the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students — homelessness affects 18% of college students at two-year institutions and 14% at four-year institutions. The survey states “homelessness means that a person does not have a stable place to live.”
Jessie answered the homelessness question in the affirmative and produced a form her parents had signed granting educational guardianship to her father’s former wife (her former stepmother) to support her claim.
“It didn’t mean that I was permanently living with her, but more that she was my educational guardian so I could finish school and graduate in Osceola,” Jesse said.
Still, her collegiate dreams were nearly dashed after she was selected for verification. Students who are flagged for verification are not eligible to receive financial aid until they have successfully completed the verification process.
“I can’t remember when I first found out that I got selected for verification, but I do remember how I felt,” Jessie said. “I was shocked because I was so close to going to college, which is something I never thought I would do.”
What is a dependency override?
As part of the verification process, Jessie was asked to submit a dependency override appeal form.
A dependency override occurs when a financial aid administrator exercises professional judgment and overrides the U.S. Department of Education’s criteria for dependent students. An override may only be granted on a case-by-case basis, and students must demonstrate a compelling reason to be considered independent.
“There are federal rules about who is considered dependent or independent and, like any system, they work in the majority of cases. But there are cases where those rules don’t work,” said Daniel Barkowitz, Assistant Vice President of Financial Aid and Veterans’ Affairs at Valencia College. “Jessie is a good example of a case where the rules simply don’t work.”
According to data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), 14.7% of undergraduate students under age 24 were independent in 2011-12. But only 0.9% of those undergraduate students were independent because a college financial aid administrator granted a dependency override due to unusual circumstances. For homeless students like Jessie, the process created yet another hurdle for already-vulnerable students.
Jessie once again had to produce the educational guardianship form upon being selected for verification at Valencia. Students who have completed a FAFSA and are submitting a dependency override form must also provide third-party statements from individuals who have knowledge of their situation, along with supporting documentation. They must then gather those materials and meet with a financial aid administrator to make their case.
“I believe it took almost a month to get it cleared up because of my situation,” Jessie said. “Whereas for my friends (who went through verification), it only took them a couple of days or a week at most. It made me really nervous because I didn’t know if I’d be able to attend college otherwise.”
Additionally, dependency overrides are effective for one year at time, and financial aid administrators must verify that the unusual circumstances that justified the dependency override in the previous year are still applicable.
In addition to the supporting documentation students are required to present when submitting a dependency override form, Barkowitz said they must also act as their own advocates.
“Displaying self-sufficiency is usually not enough, so it has to be a situation where the student has a story to tell,” Barkowitz said of the dependency override process. “I hate, as a financial aid officer, to cause pain by having them disclose information that is not comfortable for them. But in order to make their case, they have to be willing to disclose that information.
“As you can imagine, it’s a very delicate process.”
Jessie has satisfied those requirements every year during her time at Valencia, where she is currently pursuing an Associate of Arts and Sciences (AAS) in graphic design.
In addition to Pell Grant dollars, Jessie says she has paid for college with the money she makes from her work-study position at Valencia that has brought her FAFSA journey full circle. After working as a student leader for Valencia’s Student Development department last year, she recently started a new position as a peer educator in the college’s Financial Learning Ambassador Program.
“We teach the student body about financial literacy, and we have FAFSA Help Sessions where we go to certain high schools to help students and parents apply for FAFSA,” she said. “It’s an amazing job that I never thought I’d be doing given my situation.”