December 17, 2013
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced some significant changes to its application process for Title IV student financial assistance programs, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Specifically, the Department will now recognize all legal same-sex marriages for the purposes of applying for and receiving federal financial aid.
According to a Department of Education press release, the new guidance, which was announced in a Dear Colleague Letter posted on the Department's information for financial aid professionals website, is in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that invalidated part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined "marriage" as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and "spouse" as a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. Under the new guidance, federal officials will treat same-sex marriages the same as heterosexual marriages -- provided that the gay couple is married in a jurisdiction that recognizes the marriage -- regardless of where the student or couple resides or where the financial aid will be used. Federal officials use marital and dependency information to determine how much aid a student would need. Before the Supreme Court ruling, a student under 24 who was married to a person of the same sex would be considered dependent, whereas a student under 24 who is married to a person of the opposite sex would be considered independent. Additionally, noted the press release, a dependent student with same-sex parents will now be able to provide information from both legal parents for financial aid eligibility. According to Inside Higher Ed, this marital and dependency status of an applicant, as well as the financial contributions from both parents, can significantly affect the amount of federal aid he or she is entitled to receive.
Inside Higher Ed reported that the new guidance is to take effect immediately, but the actual financial aid forms will not reflect the change until January 1. According to the press release, students who still need to submit a 2013-2014 FAFSA will need to provide information in accordance with the new updated standards. Those who have already submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA have the option to submit a correction, provided that the impacted student and/or parents were legally married when the original FAFSA submission was completed. The changes will be mandatory for all applicants starting the 2014-2015 academic year, noted Inside Higher Ed.
Prior to Friday's announcement, the press release reported that the department had already begun efforts to make the FAFSA more inclusive. For example, in April it was announced that beginning with the 2014-2015 academic year, the department would collect necessary information from both of a dependent student's legal parents, regardless of martial status, if those parents live together. The department also said it would use more inclusive terms where appropriate, such as "Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)" and "Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)" instead of simply "mother" and "father".
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the updated standards in the press release.
"We must continue to ensure that every single American is treated equally in the eyes of the law, and this important guidance for students is another step forward in that effort," said Duncan.
Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin
"Dear Colleague Letter," ifap.ed.gov, December 13, 2013, http://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/attachments/GEN1325.pdf
"Education Department Announces that All Legal Same-Sex Marriages Will Be Recognized for Federal Financial Aid Purposes," ed.gov, December 13, 2013, http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/education-department-announces-all-legal-same-sex-marriages-will-be-recognized-f
"FAFSA, Post-DOMA," insidehighered.com, December 16, 2013, Michael Stratford, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/16/education-department-recognizes-same-sex-marriages-student-aid-purposes