Understanding Independent Students

October 24, 2005

The needs of independent students -- those who are considered by the federal government to be financially independent of their parents -- frequently take a back seat to those of traditional undergraduates.

But as a report released Friday reveals, these students face particular hardships and are now a majority of undergraduates. In some sectors of  higher education, their significance is even greater. Independent students make up 64 percent of undergraduates at community colleges and 74 percent at for-profit colleges in programs for less than four-year degrees. Even in sectors that serve a more traditional college-age population, independent students make up a notable cohort -- 37 percent of undergraduates in both public and private four-year colleges.

The report was released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Under federal law, all students 24 and older are considered independent. Younger students become independent if they are married, have dependants of their own, are veterans, or are orphans or wards of a court. In addition, college financial aid officers can use "professional judgment" to declare students independent in special circumstances, such as where students are estranged from their parents.

By many measures, independent students face of the kinds of financial and family challenges than other students.

Characteristics of Independent and Dependent Students, 1999-2000

Characteristic Independent Dependent
Work more than 35 hours a week 58% 22%
Delayed enrollment after high school 67% 24%
No high school diploma 12%   3%
Enrolled part time 80% 42%
Have children 53%    0%
Single parent 24%    0%

Given these characteristics, it is not surprising that the data indicate that independent students are more likely to attend less expensive institutions, with a majority attending community colleges. At four-year institutions, independent students are more likely to enroll in programs that provide specific preparation for careers.

In terms of financial aid, independent students are less likely than dependent students to apply for assistance (61 to 71 percent). And while independent students are more likely to receive Pell Grants (61 to 34 percent), they are less likely to receive grants from states (19 percent to 24 percent) or institutions (15 percent to 35 percent).

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