There was good news and bad news yesterday for same-sex parents of children in or soon-to-be in college: Starting with the 2014-2015 federal student aid form, the U.S. Department of Education will ask for information about a dependent student’s legal parents regardless of the parents’ marital status or gender, as long as the parents live together. That’s good news, in that it will be the first time the form reflects the actualities of same-sex parents’ families (and those of unmarried, opposite-sex parents). It’s bad news, in that some students may receive less aid now that both parents’ contributions will be recognized—or will they?
Currently, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form recognizes only the financial contribution of one parent if the parents are not in a marriage recognized by the federal government (i.e., only if they are opposite-sex married couples). Children of same-sex parents, even if the parents are legally married in their state, face an inaccurate and confusing form, especially if applying for aid to colleges in states that do recognize same-sex unions.
The new form will not only clearly recognize the financial contributions of both parents, it will also use inclusive terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent).”
That’s all good. But under the new form, might a student gain less aid, since both parents’ contributions will be recognized?
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged that in a conference call yesterday, as BuzzFeed reports: “For the vast majority of applicants, these changes will actually have no impact. It’s important to note, though, that collecting information from both parents and considering the income of the whole family also might result in less need-based federal student aid for those applicants who are affected because of the recognition of the complete financial resources of the family.”
It’s not exactly straightforward though. As I understand it (and I am by no means an expert, so please leave a comment if I’m wrong), the existing “loophole” for children of same-sex parents only works if one parent truly does not give the student any money. That is, that parent can’t pass the student money “under the table.” If they do, the student must even now claim it on Line 44J of the form as “Money received, or paid on your behalf (e.g., bills), not reported elsewhere on this form.” It still counts against them in terms of getting aid. The DOE’s change to the form simply moves that parent’s contribution from the catchall Line 44J to the parental contribution section where it belongs.
Of course, every family’s situation is different, so it’s certainly possible some may fare worse under the new form (especially those who have been conveniently ignoring Line 44J)—but it’s not the pure financial negative for all children of same-sex parents that it may first appear. It’s a big step forward in terms of recognition of our families’ truths, even as it appears on some level to be asking us to give up a financial advantage while we still don’t have full equality.
A coalition of organizations, including the Family Equality Council, the Center for American Progress, the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, and the National Center for Transgender Equality helped push for the change. Emily Hecht-McGowan, Director of Public Policy for the Family Equality Council, said in a statement:
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. 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.
Let’s hope full federal recognition of our families follows with a positive Supreme Court ruling striking down Section 3 of DOMA in June, resolving any lingering unfairness and uncertainty that may cling to the FAFSA change. Our children deserve equality in education—and I for one am willing to give up financial advantage in the name of equality—but only if that equality extends to all parts of our lives.