Every Learner Everywhere

Understanding Independent Status Students and How Colleges Can Serve Them

The term “college student” may conjure images of 18–22 year-olds leaving home for the first time with the support of their families as they pursue their degrees. However, over half of today’s students don’t fit that image. Many of these “independent status” students are older than 24, and others are the traditional college age but are unable to depend on their families for various reasons.

Federal Student Aid data shows that in the 2021–2022 application cycle, 52 percent of students who completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) were classified as independent status.

What does independent status mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a student with independent status meets at least one of the following criteria:

  • at least 24 years old
  • married
  • a graduate or professional student
  • a veteran
  • a member of the armed forces
  • an orphan
  • a ward of the court, or someone with legal dependents other than a spouse
  • an emancipated minor
  • homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Independent status students are racially diverse and older than dependent students. Forty-two percent of all FAFSA applicants in the 2021–2022 application cycle were older than 24, and 62 percent were women.

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research reports that more than half of all students of color have independent status, with Black and American Indian/Alaska Native the most likely to be independent among the largest racial and ethnic groups. They also report that independent students are twice as likely to live in poverty as dependent students and are working 22 hours per week compared to 14 hours per week for dependent students.

That is because independent status students are often supporting families. Half of independent students are parents of dependent children. The Lumina Foundation reports that 40 percent of college students work full-time.

What barriers do independent students face?

In addition to their role as learners, independent students may also be full-time workers, spouses, parents, caregivers, or members of the Armed Forces. Those additional roles may create added time commitments and financial burdens for independent students.

Independent students may also face isolation on campus as they differ in age, experience, and interest from traditional students. They may experience a sense of not belonging or imposter syndrome.

Independent students may also be returning to college after extended periods of working or caregiving and therefore may need to relearn or review some academic skills. They also may be unfamiliar with new classroom technologies and learning management systems that have been adopted since their previous educational experiences.

How can online learning benefit independent students?

Online learning offers several advantages for independent students. Asynchronous online learning allows independent students to pursue their studies on their own time schedule and in their preferred location. Hyflex courses provide choices for independent students to alternate in-person and virtual class sessions as their schedule permits.

Competency-based and adaptive learning courseware can provide individual pathways that permit independent students to move at their own pace through the curriculum and gain added practice in skills they may need to review.

How can colleges support independent students?

Colleges should collect and report data that is disaggregated by gender, race/ethnicity, and parent status. As Every Learner’s report, Toward Ending the Monolithic View of Under-represented Students, notes, “Aggregation of ‘underrepresented’ students obscures significant variations in admissions, course-level outcomes, persistence, graduation, and career success.” Disaggregated data tracking can help institutions target interventions that benefit independent students.

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research recommends financial needs assessments for colleges that take into account the full array of expenses for students, including childcare and transportation. They also suggest institutions consider new award policies that would allow independent students to decrease the hours they work that interfere with their studies. Presently, independent students’ earned income may disqualify them from financial aid consideration.

Colleges can offer an array of course modalities and schedules to accommodate the time and transportation demands of independent students. Increased opportunities for self-paced and competency-based courses would also benefit independent students.

A report from the National Association for Professionals in Student Affairs recommends colleges create on-campus spaces and organizations for students with independent status to build community and a sense of belonging. The report also suggests colleges invest in childcare centers for independent students who are also parents and provide family-friendly events.

A 2018 report from Hanover Research suggests colleges offer Prior Learning Assessments, noting that students who are awarded credit for prior learning are two and a half times more likely to complete their degrees.

How can faculty support independent students?

Faculty need to show sensitivity to the time, family, and employment pressures independent students may face. Setting flexible deadlines and alternate pacing for assignments can give independent students the opportunity to succeed even in the face of their many roles.

To combat the isolation many independent students face, faculty can design opportunities for active learning and online discussion to help independent students come to know and engage with their classmates. Culturally relevant course design is also important for every learner.

Faculty can also recognize and validate independent students’ prior learning by designing class activities in which independent learners can add expertise from their own work and life experiences. Building bridges between independent students’ lived experience and their academic work can build students’ confidence and help them clarify their purpose in their educational pursuits.

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