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There are several reasons students may need to seek loans without the help of their parents. And while it can definitely be more difficult to obtain loans without their help, it’s certainly possible. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about obtaining both federal and private student loans without your parents.

Federal student loans without parents   

I won’t keep you in suspense: Federal student loans are easy to get without your parents’ involvement. These loans are guaranteed by the federal government, so the borrower’s personal credit and income are not taken into consideration. Every federal student loan borrower pays the exact same loan fee and gets the exact same interest rate.

In addition to being easy to get without parents available to cosign, federal student loans have some other benefits that make them superior to private student loans. For example:

  • Some federal student loans can be subsidized, which means that the government will pay the interest on the loans while you’re in school or in a qualified deferment.
  • Federal student loans are eligible for a variety of repayment plans, including income-driven repayment, which limits your loan payments to a certain percentage of your discretionary income.
  • Federal student loans are also eligible for loan forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), Teacher Loan Forgiveness, and forgiveness resulting from making income-based payments for a certain length of time.
  • Federal student loans are eligible for deferments and forbearance during tough times. Some private lenders offer forbearance options, but they’re not as easy to get approved and/or as generous as those offered with federal student loans.

In fact, if your parents aren’t around, you might be able to borrow more through federal loans than you otherwise would. For undergraduate students, there are different borrowing limits for dependent and independent students, so if you’re classified as an independent undergraduate for whatever reason, your borrowing capacity is significantly higher.

If you’re a graduate student, you’re automatically considered to be an independent student. Graduate students can borrow as much as $20,500 per academic year in the form of federal student loans, and also have the ability to use federal PLUS Loans for any additional financial need.

Here’s a quick reference chart of federal student loan annual borrowing limits:

Year in School

Dependent Student Limits

Independent Student Limits

First-year undergraduate

$5,500 ($3,500 subsidized)

$9,500 ($3,500 subsidized)

Second-year undergraduate

$6,500 ($4,500 subsidized)

$10,500 ($4,500 subsidized)

Third-year or beyond undergraduate

$7,500 ($5,500 subsidized)

$12,500 ($5,500 subsidized)

Graduate or Professional


$20,500 (all unsubsidized)

Aggregate loan limit -- undergraduate students

$31,000 ($23,000 subsidized)

$57,500 ($23,000 subsidized)

Aggregate loan limit -- graduate or professional students


$138,500 ($65,500 subsidized) -- includes undergraduate loans

Data source:

In order to be considered an independent student for federal student loan purposes, you need to meet one of the following criteria:

  • You’re at least 24 years old before Dec. 31 of the financial aid award year
  • Both of your parents are deceased, or you are a ward of the court
  • You’re a veteran
  • You’re a graduate or professional student, regardless of age
  • You’re married or have legal dependents of your own
  • You receive a waiver from a financial aid administrator if you have unusual circumstances that qualify you as independent

To be perfectly clear, your parents not being able to afford to help you financially does not make you an independent student. The same holds true if your parents choose not to claim you as a dependent on their tax returns. Unless one of the first five criteria on the list are met, you’re not likely to be considered an independent student. However, if your parents are unable to qualify for Parent PLUS Loans because of adverse credit history or some other reason, you can qualify for the independent student borrowing limits.

Private student loans: two ways to qualify without parents

As you can probably gather from the chart in the previous section, federal student loans are often not enough to cover the entire cost of going to school. In cases where additional funding is needed, private student loans can help bridge the gap. Most private lenders will offer student loans for as much as your school’s published cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid you receive.

There are many private student lenders in the market, but unlike with federal loans, these loans are not guaranteed by the government or anyone else, so lenders need to make sure that borrowers are qualified.

Generally speaking, there are two ways you could get a private student loan without your parents. You could find a creditworthy cosigner, or you could establish credit on your own.

The vast majority of private student loans have a cosigner, so we’ll start there. Despite the common misconception, a cosigner doesn’t necessarily need to be your parent, or even a relative. Your cosigner can be anybody at all, as long as their credit and other qualifications meet your lender’s standards.

To be fair, it can be rather difficult to convince someone (especially a non-relative) to cosign your student loan. A cosigner is accepting the legal responsibility for repaying the loan if you don’t, so they are essentially putting their own credit and financial well-being at risk by cosigning. Having said that, if you can convince a creditworthy individual to cosign your loan, that could be the easiest way to get a private student loan without your parents.

If you can’t find a cosigner, the other option is to establish your personal credit and try to qualify on your own. To be clear, you likely won’t be able to build up enough credit on your own quickly -- this could be a more viable option for loans you plan to obtain for future school years. However, there are some steps you can take to build a good credit score faster than you may think. For example, even if you have no established credit, you can probably obtain a secured credit card, and responsible use of the card over time can help build your credit.

Credit requirements vary from lender to lender, but as a general rule, you should aim for a FICO® Score in the upper 600s or higher before applying for a private student loan on your own.

Most private lenders will also want to see that you have income, so it can help to boost your chances if you have a job, especially one that you’ve been at for some time.

I don’t want to sugar-coat it. Applying for a private student loan on your own can be an uphill battle, and unless you have very strong qualifications, it may not be an option. However, it is certainly possible for some students to qualify for student loans on their own, so it’s worth discussing.

The bottom line on parent-free student loans

While it can be more difficult to obtain sufficient student loans to finance your education if you don’t have your parents available to cosign, it’s certainly not impossible. You can obtain federal student loans with just as much ease as if your parents were available to help, and there are still ways to obtain private student loans as well.