Yes, a minor can be granted emancipation status by a court, and in some cases use that status to qualify for financial aid. However, that’s a very basic answer, and the reality is a bit more complicated. For one thing, the court usually defines a minor as someone under the age of eighteen (21 in Mississippi). In the case of students, the court is not what determines whether or not someone can legally qualify for financial aid on her own without the inclusion of her parents’ income. The U.S. Department of Education determines that, and they have special criteria that a student must meet in order to be considered independent.
Emancipation by the court is different from being considered independent by the U.S. Department of Education. The court’s emancipation process aids youths from fourteen to twenty (17 in most states) to become legally separated from their parents. This action makes the individual responsible for himself. It absolves the parents of any legal or financial responsibility for the child, and it allows the child to do things like live on his own or work and sign legally binding contracts without his parents’ consent. Becoming a legally emancipated minor can help you if you are under eighteen and want to sign documents related to attending or selecting a college and your parents prohibit it. In this case, your status of emancipated minor would allow you to apply for financial aid.
By contrast, a student that the U.S. Department of Education considers independent could be of any age, and they may not even consider a legally emancipated minor an independent student. A lot of students look for ways to become considered independent by the Department of Education because that allows their financial aid package to be based on their own income, which is usually quite low, rather than their parents’ income, which is in many cases much higher. By using the parental income rather than the student income, the Department of Education ends up giving out more loans, which the student needs to repay later, rather than grants, which do not need repaying.
The Department of Education has several criteria by which they evaluate whether a student may qualify to be considered independent. The age that a student automatically becomes independent in the eyes of the Department of Education is twenty-four. To the chagrin of most students who enter a four-year program at age eighteen, that means their financial aid eligibility will be determined by their parents’ income for the entire time they’re in college.
There are, however, several other ways you can get the Department of Education to declare you independent and base your financial aid on your own income. If you are in the military or supporting a child or other dependents, they will consider you as an independent student. Additionally, if you are enrolled in a Master’s program, you will also be considered independent. It is possible to find 5-year programs that combine both Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees that would qualify; however, many schools as well as the Department of Education do not offer much in the way of grants to Master’s students. If you think you may qualify for independent financial aid status but are not sure how to obtain it, consider talking with an attorney or someone at your college’s financial aid office for more information.