Changes to FAFSA now include cohabitating, LGBT parents

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Students could soon see changes to the federal financial aid application that would help accurately determine student need, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The changes that are being discussed for the 2014-2015 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) would add new options for students to select regarding their parents’ marital status.

The first change would add an “unmarried and both parents living together” option for students to select. Currently, the only options on the application are “married” or “divorced or separated”.

The form would also change gender-specific terms like mother or father to terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” where appropriate.

Lisa Tatom, director of financial aid for Sam Houston State University, said the old system is antiquated.

“Currently the FAFSA allows two choices: parents are married or divorced or separated,” Tatom said. “That’s very old-fashioned and not a true representation of today’s society.”

Tatom said household size and income and number of dependents in college are major factors in determining financial need. In the new system, some students would have to include the income of parents they didn’t have to include before.

The change could reduce the likelihood of receiving financial aid for certain students.

“If you have a household where two parents (are unmarried and living together) make $40,000 each, including that other person makes it more fair and an accurate representation of financial need,” Tatom said.

On the other-side of the coin, she said, the new options could increase their need because it would increase the household size without increasing income.

“There are a lot of people out there that have one member of the family who is disabled or retired, or who can’t or don’t work,” Tatom said. “To exclude that person because they aren’t married isn’t fair either.”

Although the university doesn’t keep statistics of students from parents that are unmarried and living together, Tatom said most students won’t be affected. However, she said, the potential changes would be more reflective of the spirit of the FAFSA.

“It ensures those who are entitled to it receive financial assistance,” Tatom said. “If you have a family made up of same-sex parents in Texas where they can’t get married, it accurately reflects the family income because you can’t include both parents.”

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said the aim is to make sure taxpayer dollars are being used where they are needed.

“All students should be able to apply for federal student aid within a system that incorporates their unique family dynamics,” Duncan said. “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.”

Even in states that allow same-sex marriages, they wouldn’t count in the FAFSA because the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits recognition of same-sex marriage on a federal level.

Under the new changes, the children of cohabitating and same-sex parents would now claim both parents income.

The National Survey of Family Growthby the National Center for Health Statistics shows that 23 percent of mothers from 2006 to 2010 gave birth to children while cohabitating with the father but not married. This is a 64 percent increase from the last study in 2002 that showed 14 percent of mothers cohabitated at the time of birth.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed that 11 percent of male same-sex partners had at least one child, while 24 percent of female same-sex partners had at least one child.

The changes will be published in the Federal Register this week for public comment before being made final.

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