The Department of Education will begin recognizing a student’s same-sex parents on applications for federal financial aid for the purposes of income information, although in most circumstances the change will likely result in these families being eligible for less assistance.
In an announcement on Monday, the department announced it will begin collecting income information from a dependent student’s legal parents regardless of their marital status or gender as long as those parents live together. The change begins with the 2014-2015 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
The precise changes are two-fold. First, the application will offer an option for students to describe their parents’ marital status as “unmarried and both parents living together.” Second, where appropriate, the new FAFSA form will use terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)” instead of gender-specific terms like “mother” or “father.”
In a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the change will enable students to apply for aid “in a way that incorporates their unique family dynamic.”
“These changes will allow us to calculate eligibility based on what a student’s whole family is able to contribute and ensure that limited taxpayer dollars are better targeted toward those students who have the most need,” Duncan said. “And very importantly, these changes allow us to provide an inclusive form that reflects the great diversity of American families.”
The income information provided on the FAFSA is used to calculate a student’s expected family contribution, or EFC. That number decides a student’s eligibility for federal need-based student aid, such as grants and students loans, in addition to eligibility for many state, institutional and private aid programs.
Prior to this change, FAFSA was constructed to collect information about a student’s parents only if they’re married. Consequently, it has excluded income and other information from some students’ legal parents when those parents are unmarried, the same gender and the same gender and legally married but not recognized as such under the Defense of Marriage Act.
According to the Department of Education, collecting of information from both of a dependent student’s parents is statutorily supported in the Higher Education Act. Additionally, the change won’t impact the longstanding statutorily required provision of considering information — if a student’s parents are divorced — on only the parent that the student has lived with for the greater portion of one year before completing the FAFSA.
While the change is intended to be more inclusive of LGBT families, the Department of Education maintains it’ll result in most situations with these students being eligible for less assistance.
In most instances, the amount of need-based federal student aid these students are eligible for will decrease because of the additional income and other resources used in the calculation of the student’s EFC. Still, in a small number of instances, the student would be eligible for more aid because the offset for an additional person in the household, a factor in calculating the EFC, will exceed the income of the second parent.
Duncan maintained the change would result in “fairer treatment of all families,” but acknowledged that it will likely result in same-sex households having to pay more for a student’s education.
“For the vast majority of applicants, these changes will absolutely have no impact,” Duncan said. “It’s important to note, though, that collecting information from both parents and considering the income of the whole family will likely result in less need-based federal student aid for these applicants who are affected because of the recognition of the complete financial resources of the family.”
Duncan also said the change will also affect both students with opposite-sex parents if those parents are unmarried, but living together.
“We know college is very, very expensive for many families, but to the extent that they are able, it’s important that both of the student’s legal parents help pay for the [education] of their child,” Duncan said.
Despite questions about whether these changes would result in cost savings for same-sex households, LGBT groups like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network praised the move to include same-sex households in FAFSA.
“GLSEN has long worked to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are not used to discriminate against students in our nation’s K-12 schools, whether that student identifies as LGBT, has LGBT friends, or comes from an LGBT family,” said GLSEN Director of Public Policy Shawn Gaylord. “We’re thrilled by the Department of Education’s decision to allow students filling out the FAFSA to accurately describe the makeup of their family, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Praise also came from the Family Equality Council, which shared credit for making the change as part of a group that included the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals and the National Center for Transgender Equality
“Students seeking financial aid want to know that the federal government will recognize their families and not treat them differently based on their parents’ sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status,” said Emily Hecht-McGowan, the Family Equality Council’s director of public policy. “Federal forms that are inclusive of all families are important tools to help LGBT parents ensure their children receive the legal and financial protections they need and the opportunities in life that they deserve.”
According to the Department of Education, it will publish these changes this week in the Federal Register for public comment as part of the draft 2014-2015 FAFSA.
The changes come as the U.S. Supreme Court has litigation before it challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Asked if the a ruling against DOMA would prompt further changes to FAFSA, Jane Glickman, a Department of Education spokesperson, replied, “We won’t know the answer to that until the Court has issued its decision and we have reviewed that decision.”