December 13, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Education Dept. to count married gay couples for financial aid
Arne Duncan, Department of Education, Washington Blade, gay news

The Department of Education under Arne Duncan will begin recognizing same-sex marriage under FAFSA. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration extended on Friday a policy counting same-sex marriages as equal to opposite-sex unions for the purpose of federal student financial aid, although the change could increase the amount of money a student would have to contribute toward an education.

The policy, announced by the Education Department, is the latest in a series of policy developments bringing the Obama administration into alignment with the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Under the new guidance, a student or a parent of a student, will be considered legally married if they’re in a same-sex marriage when applying for aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The new policy applies to a same-sex marriage included on the application even if the applicant lives in a non-marriage equality state.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement the new policy helps ensure equality for students seeking financial aid.

“We must continue to ensure that every single American is treated equally in the eyes of the law, and this important guidance for students is another step forward in that effort,” Duncan said. “As students fill out their FAFSA this coming year, I’m thrilled they’ll be able to do so in a way that is more fair and just.”

The information provided by applicants on the FAFSA is used to determine a student’s expected family contribution, which determines the student’s eligibility for federal need-based student aid.

Although the change means equal treatment for same-sex and opposite-sex married couples, it also could trigger a greater family contribution by making it seem like a student has access to more resources.

An Education Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the applicant in LGBT families would have to pay more for their education under some circumstances.

“It is possible, but at the end of the day, what is important is that we’re doing it in a way that treats everyone equally,” the official said. “We don’t know for sure. Every case is different. It is possible that the contribution level would be higher, meaning less federal support. But I can’t say that with certainty.”

The change will be reflected in the 2014-2015 FAFSA form, which is set to use terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)” instead of gender-specific terms like “mother” and “father.” The new FAFSA form will come out Jan. 1.

But the new change also has an impact on the 2013-2014 FAFSA. If the student hasn’t yet submitted that form for this school year, he or she is expected to respond to all questions related to marital status in accordance with the updated guidance. A student who previously submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA may elect to submit a correction in light of the change

The new policy builds off an earlier announcement from the Education Department in April prior to the court ruling against DOMA requiring FAFSA to count the resources of same-sex parents for a student, if those parents live together, when determining eligibility for financial aid.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is happy with the new policy.

“We’re pleased that the Department of Education, like other federal agencies, has taken steps to ensure that same-sex spouses are fully and equally recognized, regardless of where those couples live,” Cole-Schwartz said. “This policy will ensure that students in same-sex marriages and the children of married same-sex couples are treated fairly and equally under the federal financial aid system.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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