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January 10, 2017 2:11 AM   Subscribe

I've been accepted to graduate schools, but my parents won't provide me with their financial information — which, unfortunately, is required for me to apply for need-based financial aid. What to do?

I'm applying to graduate school and have gotten into some prestigious (albeit expensive) programs. I'm proud.

My parents were very proud too — until I asked them for the financial information that I need to complete the CollegeBoard "CSS/Financial Aid Profile."
- 2015 federal income tax return(s)
- W-2 forms and other records of money earned in 2015 and 2016
- Records of untaxed income and benefits for 2015 and 2016
- Current bank statements and mortgage information
- Records of stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments

As I understand, I cannot apply for need-based financial aid without my parents’ information. All the schools seem to require the CollegeBoard form for their need-based financial aid applications. CollegeBoard appears to use the same form for undergraduate and graduate admissions, and schools set their own very stringent requirements for what constitutes an "independent student" — which I don't meet.

My parents say: "The schools don't need our information because we aren't contributing. And if they take our finances into account, you won't get any need-based financial aid anyway. And if they see our finances, they might decide that you shouldn't even get merit-based financial aid. And sending you all that information is a lot of work for us."

This is complicated by the fact my family doesn’t talk about finances. EVER. This is so uncomfortable.

I am 24. I have a job and live on my own, though I am still on my parents' health insurance. My parents didn't claim me as a dependent on tax returns last year, but they did for previous years. I got partial scholarships for my undergraduate education and my parents generously paid for what remained, so I am extraordinarily lucky to not have any debt.

Suffice to say, my parents have money, but they are approaching retirement and have struggled to find jobs in recent years, so they are always saving as though they’d never make another dime for the next 25 years of their lives. They are distrustful of The System and feel that they are being punished for preparing for retirement.

tl;dr: I can’t be the first person who has encountered this problem for graduate school finances.
- Can I get the schools to somehow waive the requirement for my parents’ financial info?
- If not, how do I convince my parents to give me their information?
- If the schools insist on having my parents' financial info and my parents refuse to give it to me ... am I just stuck between a rock and a hard place? What are my options?
- Or should I just forgo applying for need-based financial aid, since a lot of the schools do take into account my parents’ finances (regardless of “expected contribution”), and I’m unlikely to get anything significant?

Side note: I think it is unlikely that I would receive significant merit scholarships at the better programs. My numbers are good but not amazing, and I won't diversify the student body much.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is this for a masters or a PhD, and are you in the humanities, social sciences, or STEM? The financial situation differs a lot between degree and field. For example, PhDs in STEM are typically fully funded (possibly requiring TAing or RAing) and salaried. I'm in a PhD program in CS and haven't had to provide any of my parents' financial information.

Can you TA or RA so that you don't have to pay? Can you find out if your department will fund you? Can you apply for fellowships (internal or external) that might fund you partially or fully, e.g. NSF, NDSEG, Hertz?
posted by glass origami robot at 2:19 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can you explain why you're not using FAFSA to apply for aid? They don't require any parental information and it's also free, unlike CSS.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:01 AM on January 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

(I think different schools will ask for the CSS as they wish: it goes into more detail than the FAFSA.)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:17 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm under the impression that much, if not all, graduate funding is merit-based. My entire [humanities] program at a large public university certainly was, though it had a massive endowment to support this. The students from WASPy East Coast power-families and the students who'd grown up poor in East LA were funded equally, which is also to say relatively well. Though you may be in a much different field than I am, it's worth considering whether you want to go to a graduate program that doesn't guarantee full funding to all accepted students, for the duration of the program. Unequal funding often lays the groundwork for intense competition between students who'd otherwise get along just fine, and breeds resentment among the less-well-off students who have to supplement their funding with off-campus work. Having to compete for scarce assistantships every year does this too, keeping students perpetually precarious. Unless these are professional programs that'll guarantee stable employment when you graduate because they're in such sought-after skill areas (like, I dunno, med school), you might do well to re-think the programs you're applying to.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:20 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

This was eight years ago, so I don't know if things have changed, but when I applied to masters programs (professional schools) I was able to just use my financial information as long as my parents didn't claim me as a dependent.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 3:37 AM on January 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

This depends on the policies of the university you are applying to. I checked my alma mater's financial aid page, which said that the requirement for parental information "may be waived" for undergraduates who are over 25 and financially independent for at least a year, and was silent on graduate students. You say you don't meet the university's requirement for an independent student; that may be the end of it. You can always call or meet with a representative from the financial aid office to make sure you understand the university's policy, and where the relevant cutoff is for not having to submit parental information.

To other posters, OP's question has nothing to do with graduate assistantships, etc; these are departmental awards for PhD students. OP is looking for aid from the university, not the department. A grad student can have one, the other, or both.
posted by deadweightloss at 3:47 AM on January 10, 2017

You parents are likely wrong on every count. There is no conceivable way in which they could be helping you by withholding this information, your parents wealth will not affect anything that is exclusively merit based. If a metric for providing you with funds takes need into account in any way, you would be disqualified from receiving it by failing to provide the information they consider necessary to assess need. The institution you want to go to wants this information to plug into its own formulas for deciding how much they will be willing to contribute to the cost of your education and have decided to include your parent's wealth in their calculation. This is really a bare minimum expectation you can have of your parents to at least allow your institution to reason out for itself how delinquent they are planning to be by their measures. If you do not expect to receive merit based funding, and cannot apply for either need based sources or sources that take into account need and merit, you can expect to be self supporting.

That said, any letter that you get from an institution offering you a chance at an post-graduate degree but not enough funding for both tuition and a plausibly livable stipend is not an acceptance letter, it is just a very targeted advertisement, and you damn well better carefully evaluate the product you are being sold. The way you have written this question makes it seem as though you are not adequately critical of the institution you have gotten this letter from. One of the big transitions from undergraduate life to graduate school is one that no one really warns you about, where as an undergrad your success is the end goal of most everyone around you with power over you, while as a graduate student you are almost always simply a means to some other end. It is a tricky new dynamic that you suddenly need to negotiate the moment you start interviewing. Indeed, as an academic graduate student, for the department you will be a means of cheaply supporting professors who bring in cash or a means of cheaply instructing students who bring in cash or a means of cheaply attracting research funding. While for professors you could be a means of establishing pecking order in the department by supervising your teaching, a means of cheaply producing research with tools that are committed to sticking around for a while, a means of expanding their research community, or generally all of the above; what you aren't is the customer like you were in undergrad, you are the product being sold by you. As a professional graduate student paying real money that is actually yours, the only healthy dynamic involves exchanging that money for an economically viable NON-ACADEMIC skill set that the school can demonstrate will lead to a professional career. All of this is a very different dynamic and you have to act like it to protect your interests because you can't rely on anyone else to do it for you anymore.

An advanced academic degree that you pay for will, in addition to driving you into debt that the degree will not help you pay off, make you an exploited stooge, and just like everywhere else, no one respects an exploited stooge in academia. An adviser who is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive and failure to fund their work out of the asses of their graduate students is an adviser who cannot be expected to give a sufficient shit about you to be worth your while; period. Similarly, a department that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a sufficient shit about you to be reasonably expected to further your interests. In exactly the same way, any academic field without sufficient funding to do something as fucking basic as paying its graduate students a livable wage for their labor through either their teaching or research is not a field worth joining for anyone but the independently wealthy and hobby minded - which does not sound like you. Not only is an advanced academic degree without funding is a miserable existence, but it will also inevitably not result in the reward of a career that academia as an institution is designed to provide, it will instead give you an academic hobby. Not all academic degrees are created equal and an adviser/department/field that cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be an adviser/department/field that cannot be taken seriously by the people you would want to pay you in a career. That is an adviser/department/field that cannot be reasonably expected to train you in an economically viable skill set, much less help you prepare for a career more successful than their own. This is why prospective students should NEVER EVER do an unpaid post-graduate academic (non-professional) degree, much less pay for one with your own money. The only meaningful signifier of prestige relevant to an academic graduate student is enough money that you can live on it, and if they don't have it for you something is very very wrong.

Things are not generally so bad in the hard sciences because even mediocre departments need to compete for a limited supply of the actually decent much less really good graduate students, and there are multiple products that good STEM students can produce that people are willing to pay for. However, there are still indeed plenty of specific professors within otherwise nice departments, specific departments within otherwise nice fields, and indeed entire fields that are impossible for a graduate student to negotiate anything not deeply shitty either because what students produce in that context is so de-valued and/or replaceable that they have no leverage or the employer is so deeply unhealthy as to be incapable of acting in their own best interest by shaping up in such a way as to attract valuable students. Unless this is a professional degree preparing you for a non-academic field in commercial demand, in which this degree will allow you to attract a non-academic salary that will allow you to pay off the sensible loans you take out, that letter is worse than worthless without funding attached. If this is an academic position and they are playing these games with you, you should seriously think twice about them even if they do find funding for you somewhere, and you sure as fuck should not trust them to continue funding you without a written contract that commits them to doing so.

Also, before some doe-eyed undergrad stops by to extol the virtues of sacrificing for what you believe in, joining an academic field under exploitative conditions will only ever hurt it in profound and generationally deep ways. Inevitably, the most important thing you as a voluntarily exploited graduate student would accomplish for the study of whatever would be to push it further towards being dominated exclusively by those with more money than sense rather than those with genuine merit. Regardless of whether one has more money or less sense, the sacrifices that should be made for academic fields are ones that must be made by those with the ability to make meaningful and beneficial ones, like universities, taxpayers, funding agencies and the independently wealthy - not vulnerable students. As a prospective student you only really have the power inherent in what you are willing to consent to, and that power is considerable. It helps no one for you to use it to enable the exploitation of the vulnerable.

TL;DR: NEVER EVER do an unpaid post-graduate academic (non-professional) degree, much less pay for one with your own money. You will only hurt yourself and everyone around you. If this is a professional degree, you don't know whether this is a good idea until they reveal to you what the ultimate cost is, and then you'll have a sober decision to make. Sign nothing that fucks you and act in your interests, from this point on no one else will.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:54 AM on January 10, 2017 [119 favorites]

I think we have to assume these are professional programs and that funding in the sense people have been talking about (TA/RA positions) is largely non-existent. There are some humanities subjects where the funding situation is so bad that the "if they don't fund you, you didn't actually get in" rule doesn't apply, at least at the MA level, but even those subjects have some universities with deep pockets and the other departments are apologetic and try and cobble some money together, not just punt you to the university financial aid office.

The CSS Profile covers non-federal financial aid. Regardless of how this situation works out, you should be able to apply for federal aid with the FAFSA, which counts grad students as independent, regardless of age (and you're 24 anyway).
posted by hoyland at 3:56 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Something that might help start the financially candid conversation you may need to have with your parents is the hard truth that you'll need to have it eventually anyway. You are now at a point where you need to start relating to your parents as an adult who loves them rather than as a child who is dependent on them. Your parents are overwhelmingly likely to eventually find themselves at a point where they will need to rely on you and any siblings you might have to care for them, even if not financially then still as a prospective holder of their power of attorney. This is another dynamic that will need to shift in your life eventually even if it doesn't necessarily need to be now. Being at least broadly familiar with your parents' finances, now as an adult, will help you transition into that role that you'll eventually need to take anyway more easily.

That said, those notorious fields of study in the humanities that have had their funding pipeline dry up to the point where it doesn't just cease to flow but in fact flows backwards are not academic fields and what they provide is never really an education in a meaningful sense. They are predatory hobbies that feed on the dreams and naïveté of their students. The "If they don't fund you, you didn't actually get in" rule always applies to advanced academic degrees, even at the MA level, always. If undergraduates don't care enough to take the courses and fund the field through teaching, while no one else with actual money cares enough to pay for the field's research or other products, and it needs your free graduate labor much less money to function - then it is a hobby fraudulently masquerading as an academic field, and you would be the sucker.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:28 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

That said, those notorious fields of study in the humanities that have had their funding pipeline dry up to the point where it doesn't just cease to flow but in fact flows backwards are not academic fields and what they provide is never really an education in a meaningful sense. They are predatory hobbies that feed on the dreams and naïveté of their students. The "If they don't fund you, you didn't actually get in" rule always applies to advanced academic degrees, even at the MA level, always.

At the risk of arguing in AskMe, there are reputable PhD programs where the funding package puts you below the poverty line as a single person household. Is this sustainable? No. Is it a reason to turn down that offer? Yes. Are they losing students to other programs like crazy because of it? Yes. Will they eventually lose faculty (who they can't pay competitively either) and the department collapses? Probably. Should you turn it down or get out of the subject entirely? Left as an exercise to the reader. But that's a far cry from the cash cow MAs you shouldn't bother applying to.

(A particular department I'm thinking of is in a subject where doing the MA and PhD separately is all but expected, so funded MAs are common. But as you might imagine, there's virtually no guaranteed MA funding.)
posted by hoyland at 4:42 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you are willing to post a little more info here (and/or Memail me) I am sure myself and others will be happy to help more.

Something seems weird here. If you have your own job, live independently, and your parents didn't claim you as a dependent last year, you should not need to provide your parents' financial info. From what you've given us, though, I'm not clear where the confusion might be.

Can you tell us a school and/or program you're applying to?
Can you give us any links to information that makes it sound like you need your parents' info?

schools set their own very stringent requirements for what constitutes an "independent student" — which I don't meet.

This is where I think something is getting confused somewhere. The rules for UNDERGRADUATES are strict to be considered an independent student. At 24, and applying to graduate school, those rules should not be applying to you.
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:41 AM on January 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think we really do need to know a bit more about the field here. If you are talking about law, business, or medicine, you should be evaluating the cost against your future employability. If this is a PhD program in any discipline, then "if you aren't funded, you didn't get in" likely applies, although as mentioned above funding could be poverty level and require significant teaching responsibilities.

If this is a master's program, then you have to think about how it will affect your future employability. If it is an engineering masters, some of those do actually function much like law/med school, in that taking on the cost mostly by debt is common even at good programs; but then you still need to think if the debt would be worth the gain in employability.
If it's for a masters in a science field, I'd be mighty suspicious (many science fields don't really respect separate masters students; you'll want to speak to students who left with the masters and did not transition to a PhD). And if it's for a humanities masters, even more so.

But that brings me toward my last piece of advice- assuming this is not law/med/business-- don't ask us, ask older students in the department. Ask the department's graduate chair. Ask them both about if your parental information is really needed, about what opportunities for funding exist (both debt-based and not), about what will happen if you fail to get your parental info (e.g. Will your loans have a higher interest rate or otherwise lack protections common to most student loans), and also ask about employability numbers afterwards.
Ask to speak with the bursar's office to verify the financials.

As for convincing the parents, should it actually become necessary, outlining exactly what difference it will make to you should help. Just presenting a form may not be enough; presenting a "yes, here is the form, any loans I get will be at a higher interest rate if you don't fill it out" or whatever the consequences are-- this might be more convincing. If there is a way for them to send the information without you seeing, that might help too (even if that's pretty strange of them, this may not be the time for that battle).
posted by nat at 5:44 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

If I were reading between the lines here, I'd guess that your parents may have more wealth than they, at least, think you know. Maybe not a kingly sum, and maybe less, in fact, than they may need to live comfortably for a long retirement, but a tidy amount.

It sounds like you don't anticipate contributions from them, but would that change if the gap to bridge the cost of your first choice program is $20,000 for each of three years, and your parents' net worth is $900,000, or $1.75M, or $3.8M?

Compound interest (and a bit of luck) can make prudent, timely investing a highly powerful tool. Buying Apple stock even in 2008 would have given an incredible return to today.

Some families are open about this stuff. Sounds like yours isn't. No judgments either way, but if this is not something they want to share with you, and you're unlikely to get need based aid anyway, I'd just let it go. And I'd heed blasdelb's admonitions on hobby graduate studies. Don't go in the hole for anything if it's not going to get you a paycheck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:56 AM on January 10, 2017

FWIW I paid 10k for a humanities masters. I did poorly during most of my undergraduate years. I spent 10k at a state school with a MA program in my field and crushed it. Now fully funded in an Ivy League PhD program. It wouldn't have happened otherwise and wouldn't have happened if I listened to the "never pay for grad school". But you should never pay for grad school-in the vast majority of cases.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:09 AM on January 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Defer to others on the questions of whether you should pay for grad school or not, but specific to your point I think you need to start by contacting your school of choice's financial aid administrator and ask them what you should do. You don't have to give details specific to your account, just ask what a person should do in your situation if your parents have refuses to provide any support or provide any information for the financial aid package. This isn't the first time this has happened, and there should be some procedural answer for you.

Specifically from the College Board FAQ on this:

"Independent Students
Please note, some colleges and programs require financial aid applicants to report parents' information even if you meet the conditions for "independent" student status. This is because they have limited institutional grant aid, and may take the parents' resources into account in deciding how much aid to award an independent student. If the parents' sections are displayed on your application, that information is required by your college or program; you must provide
information about your parents in those sections. Questions regarding a college's application policies should be directed to that college's financial aid office."
posted by Karaage at 6:11 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Talk directly to the financial aid office at the school, and to your dept. I would even make sure I talked to two different people in the financial aid office because they tend to be overworked and harried so it's easy for them to miss something.

Grad programs, as these conflicting answers show, tend to have more flexibility than undergrad. It can vary from program to program so you really do need to talk to someone at the school and not rely on just the CSS documentation.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:15 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Something sounds fishy here. I realize all universities are different, but it seems shocking that a 24-year-old who is independently employed and not claimed on their parents' taxes and is applying to grad school is not considered an independent student?? At what age do you finally become independent, when your parents are dead?? I would talk to financial aid and see whether this might be an issue of confusion between undergrad and grad admissions, or alternately, whether you might improve your situation by waiting a year or something.

But, regardless, I would not count on large amounts of need-based aid for graduate school -- my experience is that it's much rarer as compared to undergraduate. I don't think anyone from my program even filled out the FAFSA because it was sort of a merit-aid-or-don't-bother situation.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:48 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I could have posted this exact question two weeks ago-- in fact, I almost did! I'm applying to law schools and facing the same hurdle, complicated by the fact that my parents are currently in the middle of an ugly divorce. After many phone calls with the financial aid department at a certain school confirming that yes, they need the PROFILE application and not just FAFSA, and yes, they need my parents' information even though I've been financially independent for years, my solution was to fill out all areas of the PROFILE that related to me, then send my parent the login info to complete & submit, with the understanding that I had no reason to or interest in looking at that information. You may want to try floating that to your parents-- good luck!!
posted by frizzle at 7:51 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

At least back when I was applying to medical schools, they did not consider you an "independent student" for the purposes of financial aid until you were thirty years old, so this is certainly not unheard of.

I'm going to assume here that you've thought through the economics of going to grad school and decided that whatever field you're going into is a good choice for you.

Would your parents be willing to send the information to the schools directly so that you don't see it?

I think the only thing you can do is say something like "maybe after the school sees your financials they won't award me need-based aid, but the only way I can even be considered for it is if you send your information in, and I would really like to make sure that I'm able to get any kind of aid that I'm eligible for."
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:12 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine who was estranged from her parents got out of this requirement for grad school by signing a declaration to that effect. Are you willing to do that re your situation? If so, it might be worth contacting the financial aid office and asking about your options.

(This was a couple of decades ago, but still might be worth investigating.)
posted by rpfields at 8:48 AM on January 10, 2017

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Apologies for not emphasizing this in the original question: This is a professional degree.

This question is not about whether to go to grad school. (I appreciate the answers trying to steer me away from a bad choice. I promise that I am VERY skeptical of cost-vs.-benefits, have worked in the field, have spoken to many people who have gone into debt for this degree, and am actively considering debt vs. future employability. If the numbers don’t make sense, I won’t go.) This question is about how to deal with this challenging requirement of submitting my parents’ financial information in order to apply for need-based financial aid.

I plan on also completing the FAFSA, but for institutional aid, the schools are all requiring the CollegeBoard profile — which unfortunately requires the same level of detail about parents’ finances for graduate school as it does for undergraduate.

Professional schools — at least the ones that I am applying to — have very strict policies on what constitutes an “independent student.” (I feel the policies are unfair, but I'm sure people in worse situations than me have argued that it was unfair and not been able to change it.)

Admiral Haddock: I am 99 percent sure that my parents have what looks like on paper to be a significant amount of wealth. Undoubtedly, part of this refusal is that they are embarrassed to enter all those numbers … and then “zero” for expected contribution.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:59 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

It looks like you can fill out forms or write a letter declaring yourself an independent student and asking for a waiver of their information.

That link says to talk to your school financial aid about what specifically they need. Or this info may be found on your school's financial aid website.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:06 AM on January 10, 2017

Lying to a graduate school as part of an admission process, much less signing a false declaration that will remain documented by your graduate school forever for the purpose of defrauding some pot of money connected to them meant for poor students, is an especially terrible idea. If you were in fact estranged from your parents there will likely be procedures designed for that along the lines of some form of documentation of that and a signed declaration that alters the formula, or at least procedures could be designed in consultation with your institution's main financial aid office, but that doesn't sound like its you. Such a declaration if you even pulled it off would be weird and interesting and you could be damn sure that at least your graduate admissions committee would see and remember it. They would obligated not to discuss that kind of information about you, but who knows what they might say to who or what anyone aware of a false declaration might be inclined to do after encountering any indication at all of you having an active relationship with your parents.

I've seen some pretty amazingly terrible advice on AskMe, lethal even, but this idea is well up there. You seem like you've got a good handle on the graduate school side of this question already; defrauding your employer, much less an employer that will have the authority to revoke your degree at any time forever for the fraud, would be a pretty singularly awful way to fuck that up while making things harder for abuse survivors.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:23 AM on January 10, 2017

Your parents are making a bunch of assumptions that justify them taking the easy way out. Since you know their assumptions are wrong, work on getting your parents the facts:

My parents say: "The schools don't need our information because we aren't contributing.

This is not true because the schools have very have very strict definitions of Independent Student, you don't meet them, and you agree that it is unfair. Find the official policies for at least your two pair of school, and communicate the exact wording to your parents.

And if they take our finances into account, you won't get any need-based financial aid anyway.
Confirm this with your top couple of school, but my understanding is that schools might however consider that your parents will not be contributing in making their need-based decisions. But, what may change is that they will want your parents to co-sign (or be the grantee) of any loans -- this could be tricky to navigate in your situation but easier once you have the facts.

And if they see our finances, they might decide that you shouldn't even get merit-based financial aid.

Again, confirm, but this is not how merit based aid works.

And sending you all that information is a lot of work for us.

Eesh. Work on the other objections first, then offer to do as much of the legwork for them as possible.

It will be easiest if you can get to their house, consider planning a trip if you have to.

They'll likely need their 2015 returns to file the 2016 returns, so the 2015 returns are probably saved somewhere. Maybe a hard copy, maybe in their tax software, maybe at their accountant's. If they DIY their finances/taxes I bet you could just ask permission to sit down at the computer that they use and access TurboTax or whatever (chances are the password is saved in the browser).

Same with bank and mortgage statements. Those either show up in the mail monthly, or they are doing it online. Ask permission to go through their mail/use their computer.

Investments may or may not be trickier, depending on how they save, but again, either lots of letters are coming to the house, or they are logging in to a handful of websites. Chances are, the tax returns will give you the info that you need to infer which sites you need to check.

If they do all this stuff through an accountant, ask for permission to contact the accountant yourself.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:26 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Apologies and ignore my advice-- in no way do I suggest you defraud anyone in this process. You said you're an independent student which it appears, by CSS standards, you are not. Fwiw, by FAFSA standards, you ARE an independent student.

Just explain to your parents why CSS needs this; I can't imagine they'll purposely withhold info if it means you may not be able to get aid.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:40 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about medical school, then it sucks, but you really are stuck. A couple of well-endowed schools have a very high age cutoff (think 30s) for independence, but many schools require parental info at any age. They need a way to distinguish people with emergency resources from those without. But take heart... It may be worth the extra loans if you can avoid having this argument with your parents (that is, by not asking for their info).

I have been estranged from my father for about 20 years and the schools were mayyyyyyybe willing to consider an exception for him. For my reluctant-to-give-info mother and stepfather, no, the requirement stands. So feel free to ask for an exception, but don't be surprised if you're turned down.
posted by 8603 at 10:08 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your parents might as well be mine. My parents REFUSED to show any financials for myself or my siblings. We were declared ineligible for any sort of financial aid. They need to show financials for you to be considered. Otherwise your best chances are to put it off until the age limit expires or you get married.
posted by Marinara at 10:49 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

it certainly makes sense to talk with the schools' aid offices, but if your parents have material asserts, they may well be right that their wealth would disqualify you for need-based aid. The definition of need is pretty narrow, given how easy it would be to claim that one's wealthy parents won't contribute, but then they do. That doesn't sound like what you're describing at all, but this hassle is this screening system working as intended.

I've been there myself--I went to law school at 27 without my parents' financials. Borrowed my way through. Worked out fine, but that was a long time ago, and I don't recommend it today outside of the top schools.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:19 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Advice is all over the place in this thread because we don't know what kind of grad program you're asking about. Is there a way you could let a mod know (field, degree, ideally category of institution) and get that info to the thread?

The answers go in very different directions. But you aren't the first person to have this problem so you should simply discuss this situation with your school's financial aid office.

I can think of no situation, after 23 years of teaching grad students in an R1 PhD program, but also advising or teaching MA only and law and other professional students, where your instructional faculty would be at all privy to your application for need-based financial aid in detail or directly. Much of the more alarmist advice in this thread assumes that to be the case. Indeed I think it may even be illegal. At my elite R1 that boundary is considered a sacred firewall, at least.
posted by spitbull at 11:29 AM on January 10, 2017

Lying to a graduate school as part of an admission process, much less signing a false declaration that will remain documented by your graduate school forever for the purpose of defrauding some pot of money connected to them meant for poor students, is an especially terrible idea.

Of course it is, and just to be clear, this is not what I was suggesting. In my friend's case, her parents refusal to help her with her education resulted in them actually being estranged, and it is not unreasonable that this might be true in the OP's case as well.

If it is, there could be additional avenues worth pursuing. If it is not, those avenues do not exist, and nobody should lie to create them.
posted by rpfields at 11:34 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mod note: This is another followup from the asker.
I wanted to avoid this thread derailing into a chorus of “don’t go to law school!!!”, but if it will help tailor advice, I am talking about T14 law schools. (Emphasis again: I am aware of what it means to undertake debt for a law degree right now. If the numbers don’t make sense, I won’t go.)

My relationship with my parents is not "estranged" and I would not feel comfortable representing to any schools that it is. I did not interpret anyone's advice as a suggestion that I lie, just an inquiry into whether that may be the situation. And I wouldn’t lie anyway.

Our relationship is, in the big picture of family dynamics, not bad. But is it bad enough that my parents would refuse to give me their financial information, even if they know withholding it could cost me tens of thousands of dollars? ... Yeah, probably.

So maybe I should revise my questions to include: What constitutes “need” at a T14 law school?

I don’t have debt, and due to living with a relative throughout college while working, I was able to listen to all the “save early!” advice and put about $10k into an IRA. Will my situation alone disqualify me from need-based financial aid?

On one hand, most of my friends aren’t lucky enough to have $10k in an IRA at 24 years old. On the other hand, price tags for tuition alone run about $180k total at these schools, and I don’t have enough to pay for one semester, never mind three years. (But if they gave “need-based” aid to every student who doesn’t have $180k, wouldn’t everyone get aid?)

I am trying to gauge whether or not it makes sense to fight two battles: (1) my parents for their financial info, or alternatively, (2) the law schools regarding their stringent “independent student” requirements.

But if I won’t get need-based aid because of my own finances, then it doesn’t make sense to damage my relationship with my parents in pursuit of aid that I won't get anyway.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:50 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was really curious about your question because it's so different from my grad school experience -- but, I was in a PhD program and it seems like law school is a very different beast! I checked with a lawyer friend of mine and she said:

Need-based grants/scholarships for law school tend to be awarded with the intent of increasing socioeconomic diversity -- which you do not do, since it sounds like you come from a fairly wealthy (or at least not impoverished) background. The idea is to bring in students who grew up with fewer financial resources, not to target those who might have few financial resources right now. That means you are in loan territory, regardless of whether or not your parents provide their information. From the federal government's perspective, you ARE an independent student, meaning you qualify for federal loans without any parent information. That is, the lack of parent info blocks you from receiving school-based grants (which you are almost certainly not eligible for), but not from receiving federal loans.

Of course, it makes sense to check with your school's financial aid office just to make sure, but it sounds like unfortunately you're exactly the type of student they don't want to be using need-based aid on, regardless of whether your parent will contribute or not. As you say -- if this were truly about individual need, literally everyone (save independently wealthy millionaires) would be considered to have need, but schools do not subsidize law degrees to that extent since it's expected to be a lucrative career (whether it will be or not is something you'll need to determine for yourself).
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:20 PM on January 10, 2017

No, you don't sound like what would traditionally be a needs-based aid recipient. As you note, if the question was simply "does this applicant have $180K lying around" nearly all of us would qualify for aid. I went to a T5 school with significant resources, and let me tell you, they don't just make it rain.

A key factor I saw was dependents, either kids and a spouse or younger siblings (and family dysfunction of some sort where the student was the primary caregiver). Which is not to say I was privy to a lot of this stuff, but I was older and some of these folks were older (or just older at heart), and you get talking.

If you're 24, with a five-digit retirement account and no dependents, and not coming from an underserved population and/or with a compelling story (e.g., first-generation US citizen who is the sole means of support for the family), I'm thinking no, you're not likely to get needs-based grants even if/especially if you paper the record with your family's assets.

The only person I knew first hand who got a merit award, which seemed solely based on LSAT score (which was no predictor of law school academic achievement, natch), came from some amount of comfort, FWIW. So just being out of the running for needs-based grants does not mean you won't get merit grants.

In any event, if you're going to a T14 school, it's not per se terrible odds on making a living, even if you borrow, but the schools get rather local down the list, so keep that in mind. As in, it's hard to break in to practice in SF with a degree from Cornell. You've probably figured that out, but law is definitely a professional school where you need to consider where you want to be at least five years out along with how you'll pay for it today. Feel free to MeMail.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:04 PM on January 10, 2017

I am a semi-recent graduate of a T5 law school and second most of what Admiral Haddock said. My sense is that if you're coming from a middle class family (or above), you're unlikely to receive any need-based aid from these schools. Also, when I applied, the merit-based aid was done completely separately, and aside from a few specific exceptions, applicants were automatically considered for merit scholarships. So that whole process was really out of our hands.

In short, you will probably be taking out loans like me and most of my classmates, but I agree with Admiral Haddock that this is very possibly a reasonable thing to do at a T14 school these days. MeMail me if you have other questions!
posted by Carmelita Spats at 3:54 PM on January 12, 2017

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