FAFSA Makes A Family

“FAFSA”   is one of those words (if it is a word) that strikes fear into the hearts of those who know what it is.   FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and, as the name suggests, it is the form families have to fill out to get federal aid for their kids.  And the reason it strikes fear is that it is a long and complicated process (though they do say that they keep trying to improve it.)

Now you may be wondering why this has anything to do with my blog.  Bear with me.

One of the critical pieces of information FAFSA requires, of course, is the financial position of the student’s parents.   It certainly stands to reason that this is the sort of thing you’d want to know in determining whether someone was eligible for federal student aid, right?  But you all know that figuring out who counts as a “parent” means isn’t always easy.  So FAFSA has this helpful page.   Here’s how it works now, as taken from that page:

  • If your parents are living and married to each other, answer the questions about both of them.

Okay–so for married parents, count both.   Easy as pie.

  • If your parents are living together and are not married but meet the criteria in your state for a common-law marriage, answer the questions about both of them. If your state does not consider them to be married, fill out the parent information as if they are divorced. (See below.)

So the student who is the child of unmarried parents is treated as the child of divorced parents, even if her or his parents are actually actually living happily together.

Then you need to know how divorced parents treated are treated, right?  (This is where we get to the “see below.”)  So back to the information sheet:

  • If your parents are divorced or separated, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months. If this parent is remarried as of today, answer the questions on the FAFSA about that parent and the person whom your parent married (your stepparent).

Okay, so if your parents are divorced you only answer the questions about income/assets for the parent you live with more of the time.  Perhaps that makes sense.   But remember, we’re thinking about someone whose parents actually do live together–they just don’t happen to be married.  We’re just treating them as though they were divorced.  (Don’t ask me why–I have no idea.)   And if they really are happily living together, then the child spends an equal amount of time with each of them.   Now what?

Not to worry–FAFSA considered this possibility.  Once more to the information sheet:

    • If you lived the same amount of time with each divorced parent, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or during the most recent 12 months that you actually received support from a parent.

So you report only one parent.   And it isn’t necessarily the parent who has more assets/income.  It’s the one who provided more financial support.

I won’t go further into the weeds here (but perhaps you can get a sense of why the mere mention of FAFSA makes some people quake).  Suffice it to say that the operational definition of family for FAFSA is keyed to marriage.   Families where the parents are unmarried but together don’t fit in.   Clearly you are either supposed to be married or divorced.

This affects all unmarried parents–straight or lesbian/gay.   But thanks to DOMA, all lesbian and gay parents are (for federal purposes) unmarried parents.    This means that lesbian and gay families have always had to wrestle with the FAFSA forms.   The process has always relegated them (as well as unmarried but together heterosexual parents) to some weird status where they are treated as though they are divorced even though they most definitely are not.   It’s hardly affirming.

In fairness I should note that there could be financial advantages to this odd treatment.   Two married parents—report information for both.   Two unmarried parents–report information for only one.   Children of lesbian and gay parents might be found eligible to receive aid where children of married heterosexual parents with the same financial resources wouldn’t be.   Maybe there’s some sort of fairness to the trade-off.

But here’s the latest news, direct from the US Department of Education.   I’m just going to quote a bit from that press release.   Starting next year

  the Department will—for the first time—collect income and other information  from a dependent student’s legal parents regardless of the parents’ marital status or gender, if those parents live together.

The 2014-2015 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, will provide a new option for dependent applicants to describe their parents’ marital status as “unmarried and both parents living together.” Additionally, where appropriate, the new FAFSA form will also use terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)” instead of gender-specific terms like “mother” and “father.”

“All students should be able to apply for federal student aid within a system that incorporates their unique family dynamics,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “These changes will allow us to more precisely calculate federal student aid eligibility based on what a student’s whole family is able to contribute and ensure taxpayer dollars are better targeted toward those students who have the most need, as well as provide an inclusive form that reflects the diversity of American families.”

I suppose for some of you this might seem like making an awfully big deal out of a small change in a few forms.    But it’s really about accepting families the way they really are and seen that way it really does matter.



5 responses to “FAFSA Makes A Family

  1. I have not even read the whole thing yet and I bet they’ll count your upstairs neighbor as a parent if it means they can turn you down for aid and say that person should mortgage their house to put you through school. My father (now I know genetic father because he was tested for the thrombofilia gene when I lost sammy) said hell know he would not put his house up to send me to college and he was a teacher for 45 years head of the teachers union president of the NfreakingEA and he said I had to figure it out myself. Then I got turned down because he was still claiming me on his taxes years after I moved out. granted I took a fair amount of toilet paper and canned soup when I visited but not enough to get turned down for student aid. Alas. It was. And that is why I did not go to school, that and I’m lazy and did not have very good grades. Other than that its possible its his fault.

    • No they really do not in this one circumstance. You can live with two parents both of whom support you and they only count the income from one. I know that some people view it as small compensation for the general disregard the government has for non-marital families. In the end there is a trade-off. There’s recognition but there’s reduced eligibility for federal financial aid. To the extent the aid is need-based they really ought to count non-marital families.

  2. I see this new treatment as discriminating against same sex families. They want to count both their incomes as if they’re married but deny them all the Federal benefits of being married. Typical.

    • Agreed. they should be consistent.

    • I think it is a bit more complicated, though I don’t mean to completely deny your point. Unmarried couples raising children–no matter whether same-sex or different sex–have gotten this odd treatment that really doesn’t make any sense in terms of the purpose of the program. FAFSA really has nothing to do with marriage–it has to do with what the resources actually available to the child. From this point of view, treating all intact couples, whether they are married or not, the same makes sense. I think it is what they ought to do.

      It is still the case, of course, that DOMA discriminates against same-sex couples who choose to marry. Because of DOMA married same-sex couples are treated as though they aren’t married while married different-sex couples have their marriages recognized. (I think that will likely change when the Supreme Court rules in Windsor this June, for what it is worth.) Thus the “unmarried couple” category ends up including all same-sex couples as well as those opposite sex couples who are actually unmarried. And that is no doubt unfair. As you point out, the FAFSA proposal only changes the treatment of unmarried couples for this one purpose. The discrimination against married same-sex couples in other areas will remain.

      I know that some people see the benefit gained from the odd treatment of unmarried couples under FAFSA as some partial offset for the generally unfavorable treatment. (In the same way, for some same-sex couples there are substantial tax advantages to having to file as two single people.)

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