Today the U.S. Department of Education announced a small but significant change to the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, that will make the application a more fair, effective, and efficient tool for students seeking financial aid to finance their college education.
The FAFSA currently uses the terms “mother/stepmother” and “father/stepfather” when requesting information about an applicant’s parents. Applicants with same-sex parents then must either arbitrarily designate one parent as “mother” and the other as “father,” or omit one parent from the form entirely. In other words, the current FAFSA puts these applicants in a lose-lose scenario forcing them to complete and submit an application that is inaccurate and not reflective of their family structure.
Today’s proposal will help change that. For the 2014-2015 FAFSA, the Department will amend the terms “Mother/Stepmother” and “Father/Stepfather” to instead read “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.” This change also means that for the first time the Department will collect same-sex parents’ financial information in the same way that it does for different-sex parents. In addition to accurately reflecting LGBT families, these changes will capture the economic situation of these families so that students applying for aid can access financial aid based on their true financial need — without any bearing on their parents’ sexual orientation.
This change mimics similar changes made at other federal agencies. In 2011, for example, the State Department initiated reforms to give passport forms a more gender-neutral parental designation. Doing so required minimal changes to federal forms while significantly enhancing the accuracy, fairness, effectiveness, and efficiency of government operations.
At its core, this much-needed change achieves two important policy objectives.
First, this change guarantees that all families are treated fairly and equally in the higher education financial aid process. Without accurate language to describe their families, students with same-sex parents are likely to see their application delayed due to often unavoidable inaccuracies. Some may not even submit an application at all due to the complexity and confusion caused by the FAFSA’s use of gendered language. What results is inequitable access to financial aid for students with same-sex parents. This change significantly levels the playing field for these applicants.
Second, this change advances the efficiency and effectiveness of delivering aid based on need, and not allowing irrelevant factors such as sexual orientation to factor into the application process. Financial aid should be allocated based solely on financial need. Allowing other factors to enter the process results in the imprudent use of taxpayer dollars. The proposed change from the Department would be a significant step forward toward enhancing the efficient use of federal funds.
What’s more, these proposed changes are likely to have a ripple effect throughout the college financial aid system. Many private organizations, non-profits, and local and state government serve as significant sources of financial aid for potential college students. Because many of these entities model their application for higher education financial aid after the FAFSA, the proposed changes will likely have a trickle-down effect such that the entire process becomes more fair for these students.
Still, anti-gay adoption laws and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) continue to present a number of problems for students with same-sex parents. Nevertheless, today’s announcement is a huge step forward for LGBT equality in higher education, one that other agencies should also implement so that all families are treated equally under the law.
Crosby Burns is a Policy Analyst for LGBT Progress.