When Kinesiology sophomore Randy Wills decided to come to the University, he knew paying the $20,000 price tag would be his own responsibility.
Even after receiving financial aid, Wills has to work 20 hours a week, splitting his time between two jobs to pay the $5,500 that his scholarships do not cover.
Wills, and others like him, compose a small minority of University students who are financially independent of their parents.
Though their parents may not contribute to paying their tuition, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid treats students like Wills as dependents, meaning their parents’ income affects their financial aid offer.
According to Financial Aid Director Pam Fowler, a student must either be 24, a graduate/professional student, an Armed Forces veteran, a previous ward of the court (someone who has been removed from the custody of their parents), married or have legal dependents in order to have independent student status. If a student does not meet one of these requirements, the student is still considered a dependent.
The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines regarding financial aid state that parental refusal to contribute to a student’s education does not affect a student’s dependency status on the FAFSA. Neither does a student’s demonstration of self-sufficiency.
Despite the obvious disjunction between their legal and actual financial status, Wills and other independent students have to rely on their own income to pay for their tuition.
“To earn the cost of attendance by working would require a full-time job paying at least $10 per hour . I don’t know how students who do not get any parental support manage to do it,” Fowler said.
Students such as LSA junior Kellie Reid find themselves in a catch-22.
Reid began working in a restaurant when she was 15 and gradually assumed all of her own financial responsibilities, but is still legally considered a dependent. Her financial aid is calculated assuming that her parents will contribute toward her education, even though she agreed to pay her college expenses.
“It’s been a struggle to figure out how to make it work,” Reid said.
She has two jobs this semester, splitting her 40-hour work week between being a waitress at Gratzi and working as a clerical assistant at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry. She is still taking 14 academic credits and getting four credits for an independent study through her job at CFP.
“I have to be efficient in everything I do,” she said.
Because financially independent students must still report their families’ financial circumstances, their financial aid packages vary widely.
For example, Will’s mom works a part-time job and has four kids, two of which are in college. “My mom didn’t really have the money for (college tuition) and the FAFSA helps us out a lot,” Wills said.
Their family contribution was calculated to be only $300, and much of his tuition is covered by grants.
Though he simultaneously holds two jobs – one work-study – in addition to 15 credit hours, Wills shrugs off his decision to pay for tuition himself.
“It really wasn’t that big a deal,” Wills said.
So far, he has managed to pay off his loans by working during the summer.
He also said that his twin brother, who attends Michigan State University, has more loans to repay even though they have effectually the same financial situation.
“I think (the University’s financial aid package) is great,” Wills said. “He doesn’t get at all what I’m getting.”
Reid, on the other hand, has a much less generous aid package. She has $5,500 in scholarships and must pay for the remaining $14,500 through loans.
“I’m in a lot of debt,” she admits, because her parent’s income is figured into her financial aid. While she had a better financial aid offer from Western Michigan University, she elected to attend the University anyway.
“It’s an investment,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere that was the best.”
She has not found many resources on campus that specifically address the issues faced by financially independent students.
“I know that they’re there, but it’s incredibly difficult to take advantage of them,” she said.
According to Fowler, there are no University scholarships or counseling services through the Office of Financial Aid that specifically aid financially independent students. But Fowler added that counselors who work in the University’s financial aid office will assist a student by completing the FAFSA upon request.
LSA sophomore Monica Sendor, a member of the honors college, has assumed responsibility for her college payments this semester. She also had better aid offers from other universities.
“Private universities have a lot more endowments to give and loans to offer,” Sendor said. “There was a noticeable difference in the percentage of financial aid.”
To make up for the difference, she works a combined 20 hours a week between two jobs, one as a campus tour guide, and another as an office assistant at the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.
Like Reid, she has found it difficult to get advice about being financially independent.
“You have to be responsible for a lot of things – making sure you have enough money to pay the bills on time,” Sendor said.
She would like to see a counselor or adviser who specifically addresses concerns for students who have to navigate the financial aid process by themselves.
While the tuition bills carry a lot of responsibility, there are merits to being financially independent.
Amy Mason, a School of Music freshman who pays her tuition. Her parents pay for her room and board, finds the freedom of financial independence irreplaceable.
“I’m really motivated to keep my grades up, because I don’t want to waste my money,” she said.
But she pointed out one drawback: “I have no money.”
Mason, a viola performance and music education major, pays $3,500 by earning money playing her viola in the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra and by playing music gigs in the Detroit metro area.
Reid said she also finds the same benefit from her situation.
“There are times I think I wish I could be one of those students who rides through college, but I know how the real world works already,” she said.
As a trade-off, students who have the responsibility of paying for college have little time to be involved in college organizations.
“In the summer, I allow myself time for (extracurriculars),” Reid said, explaining that she simply cannot fit clubs into her schedule.
Nonetheless, Sendor, Reid, Wills, and Mason do not regret their decisions to pay the University price tag independently.
“It’s never easy, but it’s always fulfilling,” Reid said.