Early this afternoon, the Department of Education announced that they will now recognize marriages of same-sex couples for federal student aid programming purposes, including on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This guidance, issued in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down of the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), means that all current and prospective students with same-sex spouses or parents in same-same sex marriages will be able to access the same financial supports as any other student aid applicant.
Whether a student or her parents are recognized as married is an important factor In determining a student’s eligibility for need-based financial aid. If a student is not married, she is considered a dependent of her parents and their income is included in expected family contributions when determining how much financial assistance that student will need. Typically, including a parent’s income in this determination will greatly lower the amount of aid a student will be awarded. However, if married, the same student will be considered independent, and her parents’ income will not be factored into that determination.
Until this guidance was issued, the Department was required by DOMA not to recognize a student’s legal marriage to a same-sex spouse. This meant that the student would be considered a dependent of her parents, and receive significantly less financial aid than a similarly situated student with an opposite sex spouse. In short, students with same-sex spouses were facing a substantially greater financial burden when attending school than other married students. Under this new guidance, the Department will recognize a student’s marriage to her same sex spouse, and that student will receive the same financial aid award as any other married student.
This guidance will also make the financial student aid process more fair by preventing some student applicants from receiving too much aid. The process will now include the income of both parents in a same-sex marriage, rather than only one, more accurately capturing their potential financial contributions to their child’s education. In turn, the income of a student’s same-sex spouse will now be included in the determination of how much a student is expected to pay. Unfortunately, the Department policy does not consider committed relationships outside of marriage, including domestic partnerships or civil unions, in making these determinations.
Under the guidance, a student or the parents of a student will be considered legally married if their marriage was entered into in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages, regardless of whether their marriage is recognized where they now live or the student attending school. From the date of this guidance onward, students will be required to disclose information of a same-sex spouse or parents in a same-sex marriage on their application, though those who already submitted their forms for the current school year may but are not obligated to update this information.
Family Equality Council commends the Departure for issuing this important and needed guidance. There are currently six million children with LGBT parents in the United States, many of whom will seek financial assistance when attending college. This guidance will help those students and their families be able to afford higher education, and ensure they are treated fairly in the student financial aid process.