The U.S. Department of Education recently announced several changes to the language of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, including options for unmarried parents living together and gender neutral terminology.

These alterations will first appear on the 2014-15 FAFSA, with options for “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent),” “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “unmarried and both parents living together” for the section referring to guardians and parents of students legally categorized as dependents. With gender neutral terminology and other changes, the new FAFSA recognizes same-sex couple parents and parents who are unmarried and living together. The U.S. Census recorded 6.8 million unmarried-partner households in 2010, and of this number, 593,000 were same-sex households.

Completion of the FAFSA by prospective and current college students determines their qualification for student financial aid from programs such as federal student loans, Federal Work-Study programs and Pell Grants amongst other options.

While the Department of Education stated the new FAFSA will not affect the majority of applicants, the inclusion of both parents’ profits may decrease aid for some students. On the other hand, if both parents make incomes under a certain amount, then the altered guidelines will provide more aid.

Mike Miller, director of the UCSB Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, said he will be attending a national conference to discuss the new FAFSA changes. Miller said the new adjustments will have wide-reaching implications for all unmarried parents, and clarified that the FAFSA was not intending to specifically target same-sex couples as the federal government still does not recognize these couples.

“This new regulation states that starting in 2014-15, dependent students’ FAFSA must include income and other information about both legal parents, regardless of the parents’ marital status or gender,” Miller said in an email. “This includes adoptive parents. The federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage, so this is strictly about providing information for both legal parents on the FAFSA. Also, parents must be living together.”

Previously, FAFSA only collected information about married parents and did not provide options for same-sex parents, who are unrecognized under the Defense of Marriage Act. On April 29, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan clarified the rationale behind the FAFSA changes in a statement to the press, explaining the new options are considerate of the “diversity of American families.”

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

According to Cristina Madrigal, assistant director of LGBT Resources and Non-traditional Student Resources in the UCSB Department of Women, Gender & Sexual Equity, the FAFSA changes have positive implications for recognizing same-sex couple legitimacy, yet they also have the power to place children of these couples at a financial disadvantage.

Madrigal also said the language of parental income sections on the FAFSA is not all that inclusive, as it still includes limited categories for guardians.

“I am hesitant to give my full support of this change,” Madrigal said. “The language of ‘Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)’ falls short of full inclusion and does not recognize individuals who do not adhere to the gendered categories of father and mother, or who are legal guardians in a capacity other than ‘parent.’”

Madrigal said she is uncertain of all the details surrounding the new changes, but said that the seemingly limited categories are not considerate of the diversity that actually exists in present American society.

“I am not sure if applicants will be required to select one of the identities for their ‘parents,’” Madrigal said. “So, I can only speculate that doing so would fall short of full recognition of the diversity that exists in family structures.”

The Department of Education has cautioned that upcoming changes could result in less aid for some students with unmarried or same-sex parents, according to Madrigal. She also said that while federal law does not provide same-sex couples with the same legal financial benefits as other couples, the FAFSA will recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.

“Similarly-sexed couples are not legally permitted to marry at the federal level and therefore are not afforded the same tax benefits as married couples,” Madrigal said. “However, with the new changes to the FAFSA, their relationship will be treated as ‘married’ when it comes to their dependent’s eligibility for federal financial aid.”



A version of this article appeared on page 1 of the May 7th, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.