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Sarah Westover has been financially independent since the age of 16. With her mother struggling with drug addiction and no relationship with her father, Sarah lived with her brother and worked as a housekeeper while going to high school. She persevered and graduated, but her plans hit a snag when it came time to go to college. Her mother was in jail and could not provide the financial information needed to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Despite living independently and paying her own bills for years, Sarah was still a dependent student in the eyes of federal student aid regulations, meaning she couldn’t apply for Pell Grants or federal loans without information from a parent. Calls to the financial aid office did not help and legal emancipation was too confusing a process to navigate. So instead, Sarah had to wait, working for minimum wage at the nearby Minute Market for a year until her mother overcame her addiction and they could reconnect.

Fortunately, Sarah eventually obtained her mother’s information. She applied for and received both a Pell Grant and an Oregon Opportunity Grant to attend Southern Oregon University in her hometown of Ashland. This aid, plus student loans and federal-work-study, made it possible for her to go to college, where she thrived. She graduated in 2010 with a double-major in political science and criminal justice, and received the Dankook Award for Outstanding Female Undergraduate. She now works for the Oregon Students Association.

Sarah eventually received the financial aid she needed to complete college—but not before she was unnecessarily forced to take a year off, an outcome that could very well trip up other students on their path to college. And it’s all because federal student aid rules forced Sarah to be treated like someone she was not: a dependent student who could rely on her family for financial help. This is because federal financial aid rules require parental information for all students under the age of 24 unless they can prove special circumstances like being married or having a child, many self-supporting adults in their early twenties are instead being cast as children.

The restrictive nature of federal aid dependency determinations is just one way that current federal grant aid programs are not well-suited to the students today—people who are older and not entering college straight from high school. This issue and others are explored in Breaking with Tradition, a report released today that explores how to make federal grant aid work better for today’s students.

Breaking with Tradition lays out a case for why federal student grant programs need to be better tailored to the increasingly large group of students who are older, balancing family and work commitments with academics, and likely to be at a greater risk of non-completion due to attending part time, being academically underprepared, or other issues. In particular, the report makes recommendations for changes to federal grant rules, new requirements to encourage states and institutions to provide more affordable educations better suited to these students’ needs, and introduce more incentives for completion-oriented behavior.

More specific recommendations include:

  • Make it easier for students under the age of 24 to become independent by using the tax-based dependency status of anyone who enters higher education for the first time at the age of 20 and give aid administrators the authority to override dependency decisions if the student can prove he or she is self sufficient.
  • Move away from multi-year FAFSA filings. Instead, have students fill out the FAFSA once with the results good for up to 100 percent of their program time.
  • Require colleges to establish degree plans with incoming students to lessen the number of unnecessary courses they take and ensure students have access to required classes.
  • Create a formal affordability relationship between Pell Grant recipients, the federal government, colleges and universities by setting standards for how much of their income the least affluent students should be expected to pay.
  • The paper also calls for conducting a number of experiments related to non-traditional students, such as operating an emergency fund to pay for sudden, small dollar costs, allow students to draw down grant aid like an account to help with irregular enrollment, and provide bonuses for hitting certain credit accumulation momentum points.

You can read the whole paper here.