The aid form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the single most important document in determining how much and what type of financial aid students receive. But the form, informally called Fafsa, has not kept up with the changing composition of families, in large part because the federal agency that issues it has to abide by the Defense of Marriage Act, which recognizes only heterosexual marriage. Because these students cannot fully portray their family’s finances, the amount of aid they receive may not fairly reflect their needs. “In some cases, they are robbed of aid they would have otherwise received, and in other instances they benefit from it,” said Crosby Burns, special assistant for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, a research organization that recently published a report about these issues in the financial aid process.
This is not solely an issue for children of same-sex parents. Any children with unusual family circumstances — whether their parent is in jail, involved in a messy divorce or simply refuses to provide support — can have trouble filling out the form. No numbers are available on the number of students from gay and lesbian families who are affected, though Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation law and policy issues, has calculated that about 220,000 children under age 18 are being raised by same-sex parents.
Though it is not immediately clear from the actual form, officials from the Department of Education, which issues it, said that applicants with two married mothers or fathers must fill out the Fafsa as if the couple were divorced. They must choose the legal parent who provides more support, which means that the other parent’s income and assets are often ignored. That can give the impression that the student requires more aid — or less — than one from an identical family headed by heterosexual parents.
Applicants with same-sex partners, meanwhile, may not be able to include their spouses or other dependents on the form. Other gay students, who are now out on their own because their families have cut off support on learning about their sexual orientation, have difficulty establishing themselves as financially independent. (In some instances, however, colleges could choose to include more information provided by the student and include it in their calculations.) “Since most other financial aid depends on the application for federal aid, these distortions will trickle down throughout the entire financial aid application process, even outside the federal government’s support,” Mr. Burns said.
The section of the financial aid form that asks for parental information has two lines: one for the applicant’s father/stepfather and another for mother/stepmother. The form also asks for the parents’ marital status, as well as the applicant’s marital status, using the federal definition. “There is the stigma and indignity of having to list them as divorced, when they are, in fact, not,” said Emily Hecht-McGowan, director of public policy at the Family Equality Council, “It creates confusion and this extra step that children raised by L.G.B.T. parents have to go through,” she added referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
An undergraduate at Harvard, meanwhile, said his challenge was trying to figure out how to get financial aid while excluding his parents. He said that when he was home during winter break in his sophomore year, he told his parents he could not change his sexual orientation. His parents promptly decided to cut off their financial contribution to his studies, he said, and asked him to leave the family home. (The student wanted to remain anonymous to protect his parents’ identities.) He scraped together the last of his savings to get a plane ticket back to Harvard, and his resident dean helped him find a place to stay for the remainder of the break.
But figuring out how to pay tuition was a bigger hurdle. Students under the age of 24 generally must have their parents fill out the Fafsa, unless they can persuade their institution to grant them independent status, which colleges have the power to do. But the Harvard student said that he was told that the university typically required students to take two years off to be deemed independent. “When I first heard this, I was mildly panicking,” he said. “I had no idea what I could do for two years or where I could do it.”
Ultimately, the university agreed to grant him independent status, as long as he took out about $10,000 in total loans, kept a part-time job, and visited a counselor (which made him uncomfortable, since his only experience with therapists was with those who tried to convince him that he could change his sexuality). He was also required to get a letter from his parents explaining why they cut off financial support — something he knew he could not possibly do.
Eventually, Harvard relented and told him it would not require him to get the letter and allowed him to continue his studies. But college officials did urge him to take a short break to clear his head. “It was a pretty intense series of steps to get into this independent status,” he said. He is taking the current semester off, and will start his senior year in January. “I know if I had been at any other university, I would have had to drop out,” he said, since he had a support system that included his dean. Even so, “It was a pretty excruciating experience.”
Vincent Garcia, director of the scholar relations and selections program at the Point Foundation, which provides scholarships to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, said he gets calls a couple of times a month from gay and lesbian campus directors, financial aid directors or students who were in similar situations. “The federal government has given the colleges the ability to declare the student independent, but they don’t want to tell them that from the outset because they don’t want to commit the financial aid dollars to someone who suddenly has so much financial need.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that many colleges do not have a protocol for dealing with these students, whether they are abandoned by their families or are from families like the Illinois student with two mothers. In his report, Mr. Burns suggested that the Department of Education investigate whether it could revise its policies to recognize families headed by same-sex couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act. At the very least, he said, the department could issue guidelines and training materials to financial aid administrators to help the families.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb Web sites, agreed that “the Fafsa does not provide a lot of guidance for students in such situations.” And if they qualify for less aid, this may make it more difficult for such students to enroll in and graduate from college. He added, “This is especially problematic for children of same-sex parents, since they are discriminated against through no fault of their own.”