Children of same-sex couples can soon include both moms – or both dads – when they apply for federal financial aid.
Starting with the 2014-2015 school year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will ask college students to provide financial information from "Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)" and "Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)" and allow students to list parents as "unmarried and living together."
Currently the form asks separately, "How much did your father/stepfather earn?" and "How much did your mother/stepmother earn?" and applicants are limited to classifying their parents as married/remarried, single, widowed or divorced or separated.
The new form also applies to children of heterosexual couples who cohabitate, but have not tied the knot. These changes create "an inclusive form that reflects the diversity of American families," Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a statement announcing the changes on April 29.
While the changes reflect what the word "family" means for a broader group of students, they don't eliminate financial aid confusion for sons and daughters of same-sex couples.
"This FAFSA change will not be wrinkle-free for same-sex couples," Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, wrote in a recent blog post. Polikoff specializes in lesbian and gay family law.
Same-sex couples can legally marry in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but the Defense of Marriage Act means those unions are not recognized at the federal level. That in turn means their children will need to check the "unmarried and living together" box despite the parents being legally married.
Changes to the financial aid form could cause financial headaches for affected families, too.
The Department of Education uses income from the student and their legal parents to estimate how much money they can put toward the applicant's education. This figure is known as the expected family contribution, or simply EFC, in financial aid lingo.
If the parents are married, both incomes are counted. If they aren't, only one parent's income is counted on the 2013-2014 version of the FAFSA. Reporting both incomes in same-sex households will up the amount a family is expected to contribute in most cases, reducing the student's eligibility for need-based aid such as Pell Grants, according to the Department of Education.
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That's a risk these families are willing to take to move closer to equal footing, says Janson Wu, a staff attorney with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a legal organization based in Boston.
"They're simply asking to be treated the same as all families," he says. "That is what is fair and right."
The Department of Education also needs to clarify how it defines legal parents, pointed out Polikoff, the AU law professor, who wrote the book "Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law."