How Does Financial Aid Work for Divorced Parents?

Dad helping his teenager doing homework at home

Getting into college can be a monumental achievement, but it isn't the last hurdle for many college-bound students with divorced parents. Applying for financial aid when your parents are divorced can be complicated. Parents may be called upon to gather and disclose financial information, and have frank discussions about how they plan to contribute to college expenses. This much cooperation can be a challenge for married couples, let alone parents who are no longer legally wed.

Take heart. Millions of college students get through this process each year. Applying for financial aid is a critical step in bringing your college dreams to life. Here are the steps to follow.

Should You Fill Out the FAFSA?

Unless your family has the means to pay for college outright, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the place to start. When you apply for financial aid through just about any college, the FAFSA will be a required part of your application. The FAFSA calculates your eligibility for federal financial aid, but it also may be used to consider state financial aid and institutional aid from your college of choice, including merit-based scholarships.

Unless both parents still live in the same home, only one parent needs to complete the FAFSA. If your parents are divorced and live in separate households, fill out the FAFSA using information for your custodial parent only. If you split time between your parents' households, your custodial parent for these purposes is:

  • The parent you lived with more during the past 12 months. Even if your parents have 50-50 custody, most years have an odd number of days, so you can use whichever parent you spent more days with as your custodial parent.
  • The parent who provided the majority of your support. If you truly spent equal time with both parents, consider the parent who provided the majority of your support to be your custodial parent.

Information from your FAFSA will be used to create a Student Aid Report, which will be supplied to the schools you've listed on your application. The school you commit to will use the FAFSA to determine federal grants, work study and loans to offer you, and may also use it to calculate state aid or school-specific funding.

The CSS Profile: Adding Complexity

In addition to the FAFSA, nearly 250 colleges—many of them private colleges—also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as part of their financial aid application process. The CSS Profile is more detailed than the FAFSA. Whereas the FAFSA looks primarily at your parent's income, the CSS Profile also considers business assets, home equity, student and sibling assets—the list is long. Your school may also require both parents to submit CSS Profiles. Parents will fill out their applications separately and privately, but they will both be considered as potential funding sources.

Providing a CSS Profile for both your parents can make a difference in the way a school sees your financial aid eligibility. Especially if you have a custodial parent who would likely qualify for financial aid and a non-custodial parent who likely won't, your chances of receiving aid might be hindered at a college that requires the CSS Profile versus one that uses only the FAFSA.

This shouldn't necessarily discourage you from applying to a college that requires the CSS Profile. Colleges can use multiple sources of funding when they put financial aid packages together, and they may still come through with the aid you need. But it is helpful to understand this dynamic as you apply for—and ultimately choose—a college. The CSS Profile can create a different snapshot of your family's ability to pay than the FAFSA does, and that could make FAFSA-only schools a more affordable option for you.

Getting Help With the Financial Aid Process

Both the U.S. Department of Education (at and the College Board offer searchable online help for filling out FAFSA and CSS Profile forms. These sites should provide current answers to questions like how to include information on stepparents and stepsiblings or how to report child or spousal support.

For more nuanced questions—and for help maximizing the financial aid opportunities at your school of choice—it may be useful to contact the school's financial aid office and find out what resources are available to you. They may offer FAFSA workshops to help you fill out forms. They can meet with you to help you understand your financial aid award letter and may provide additional ideas for you if your funding falls short of expectations.

The financial aid office is also the place to go if you have special concerns. What if your parent refuses to fill out the FAFSA, or you've lost contact with your noncustodial parent and can't get them to fill out a CSS Profile? They may be able to help you puzzle out FAFSA's Dependency Status requirements or review your CSS Profile Waiver Request for the Noncustodial Parent—and in some cases they may be able to make accommodations for you.

Need even more help navigating the application process or just figuring out how funding can work? Online sites like Form Your Future, Saving for College or College Covered may be helpful.

What if Financial Aid Isn't Enough?

The cost of attending college can be astronomical, even with financial assistance. If the financial aid award you've received from your college simply won't allow you to make ends meet, you may want to consider next steps:

  • Meet with your school's financial aid office (again). Plead your case. If you're a prime candidate, they may be willing to help you find additional sources of funding—especially if you indicate that another school has offered you more help.
  • Look elsewhere. Colleges can vary widely in the amount of aid they offer, even when they're using the same financial aid documents to make these decisions.
  • Consider work opportunities. Federally-sponsored work study isn't your only option. There's a wide range of money-making opportunities for college students.
  • Tap your family members. If you have grandparents or other relatives who are willing and able to contribute, now may be the time to gratefully accept. Paying them back or paying it forward with younger family members is always an option after graduation.
  • Apply for scholarships. Check with the financial aid office and your high school's college counselor for ideas and read up on where to find scholarships. The Department of Labor also offers a free scholarship search tool.
  • Look into private student loans. In addition to the federal subsidized and unsubsidized student loans that may be part of your federal financial aid package, you can consider private student loans. These loans typically have higher interest rates and fewer protections, and you need to qualify for the loan, possibly with help from your parents. You can explore your private loan options using Experian CreditMatch™.

Invest the Time

Applying for financial aid with divorced parents may involve a bit of legwork, but it's navigable for most families. Be ready to leverage the financial aid office at your college—or multiple colleges—for help in filling out forms, understanding your aid package and finding as many resources as possible to fund your education. Whatever happens, don't be discouraged. Completing financial aid applications can open the door to the funding that makes college possible for you. That's a time investment that can pay off handsomely.