The recent case of 18-year-old Rachel Canning, a New Jersey teenager who moved out of her parents’ house and sued to force them to pay for private high school and future college tuition, has gained national attention. Although a Morris County judge denied Ms. Canning’s emergency request for $600 per week in emergency support, the case will continue to wind its way through New Jersey’s legal system. The final decision will determine whether she is an emancipated minor, as her parents claim, or whether she is dependent on her parents, as she claims.
The issue of whether parents should contribute toward their child’s college education is nothing new, although the FAFSA does assume that parents will contribute. Under current FAFSA rules, students are automatically considered to be dependent on their parents for financial aid purposes until they reach at least the age of 23 unless they marry, have children, join the military or meet at least one criterion regarding self-support. Some students would like to be declared as being independent in order to get additional financial aid, particularly if their parents are wealthy but do not want to contribute toward the expected family contribution (EFC). But if this were allowed, federal financial aid costs would skyrocket as families choose the dependency status that works best for them.
The result of this case would impact her federal financial aid eligibility. The relevant criterion in the Canning case is whether she has been classified as an emancipated minor by a New Jersey court, which would be the case if her parents win. In that case, and if her parents do not have to give her money to pay for college, Ms. Canning would be classified as an independent student with an EFC of close to zero—resulting in the maximum Pell Grant. But if Ms. Canning wins, then she would have to consider her parents’ income and assets on the FAFSA and she would likely get little to no federal financial aid; however, she would get some money from her parents through winning the case.
So will Canning v. Canning affect the structure of federal financial aid going forward? Probably not. But it still bears watching as the lawsuit could help to set precedent over the issues of emancipated minors and paying for college. I’ll keep an eye on the case—if for no other reason than it’s dominating the local news in New Jersey!