For purposes of paying for school, federal law classifies all college students as either dependent on, or independent of, their parents. An independent student is one who is older than 24, married, or who has dependents. Other qualifications include being in graduate school or a veteran of the U.S. military. Independent students can apply for college funding on their own. Dependent students need their parents' cooperation.
Parents Have an Obligation to Pay
Parents of dependent students have the first obligation to pay for their children's college costs. The government won't step in with financial aid unless parents are unable to fulfill this obligation. It doesn't matter if you've supported yourself for years. If you are technically a dependent, your parents' incomes will be considered when determining how much government aid you're eligible to receive. Individual schools can override dependency status. Giving them a reason to do so can be complicated and might require a lawyer's help.
The Federal Government May Help
When the parents of dependent students can't afford to pay for college, the federal government offers grants toward tuition. Grants are restricted to low-income families, and the U.S. Department of Education has a system for determining what qualifies as low income. The amount of the grant students qualify for also depends on whether they're attending school full or part time, and the cost of the schooling. Colleges decide the cost of schooling.
Student Loans Can Help
Students can also take loans to pay for tuition. Some loans are privately funded, and the government guarantees others. Because the government assures the lender that you'll repay these "Stafford" loans, you typically can't discharge them later in bankruptcy. Stafford loans can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are reserved for low-income students, and the government pays the interest while you're in school. Unsubsidized loans aren't dependent on your family's income, but you have to pay all the interest.
Not All Scholarship Services Are Legitimate
Colleges typically offer a few scholarships each year, but other sources exist as well. Finding scholarships from other sources can be difficult. Some students use services to help match them up with available scholarships. However, not all these services are legitimate. If a service guarantees that it can get you a scholarship, it's probably a scam. Nobody can guarantee that you'll perform well enough to get the money. These services break federal laws involving false advertising and fraud. If you encounter one, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission.
An Education Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding finding sources of money to pay for college is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an education lawyer.