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New Gender-Neutral FAFSA Form May Hurt Students Financially

by Kelly Petty, published
Credit: University of Georgia

Credit: University of Georgia

While the Obama administration looks to expand financial aid opportunities to students of gay or unmarried parents, questions remain as to whether recent changes will further hurt the ability of many students to get the most aid for college.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced new rules regarding the Free Application for Student Aid form for 2014-2015 to encompass students from unrepresented families. No longer will dependent students classify their parents as “mother” or “father.” New parent categories will be gender-neutral and consist of changes to relationship status to include unmarried parents of children cohabitating.

The Education Department sees these changes as a way to offer greater financial aid opportunities to students who come from diverse family backgrounds.

"All students should be able to apply for federal student aid within a system that incorporates their unique family dynamics," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "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."

The new form will offer students the choice to list their biological or adoptive parents as “unmarried and living together,” and will use wording such as “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” with the option to define them as “mother,” “father,” and “stepparent.” The Education Department says the new terms fall in line with similar wording used in the Higher Education Act.

The modified form does stop short of including a classification for divorced parents as the Higher Education Act mandates that information from the parent of whom the child has lived with for a greater part of a 12-month period prior to submitting the FAFSA form can be counted.

FAFSA has collected the information of millions of college-bound students in the hopes of offering them financial aid to fund their post-secondary education.

The parent section of the form provides necessary information to aid the Education Department in calculating a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) -- the amount of funds a family is estimated to be able to contribute to their child’s education. That EFC determines how much federal aid a student is allocated to augment their post-secondary studies.

On the one hand, the new form will undercut the Defense of Marriage Act by capturing the income and personal information of parental units not previously accounted for on the form. However, it also shirks more responsibility on a greater number of students to finance their college education themselves due to a potential increase in EFC.

Students who previously couldn't add both of their parent’s income information will now have the option to do so, but at the possible expense of receiving less aid if EFC calculations show that a family can provide more. For a student who could have received a Pell Grant, which offers up to $5,500 to students in low-income households, the addition of another parental unit could affect their eligibility for that particular form of aid.

The Department of Education has stated that though they expect some students to lose aid funds, the majority won’t be affected since they are independent, or are already counted because they come from either a single parent or two-parent, married households.

The new FAFSA may appeal to some on the right who want to see a more fiscally conservative White House that tightens the government purse strings by spending taxpayer dollars from a measured approach. Yet, it could also hurt President Obama’s young supporters who have urged his administration to provide relief to the millions of students slacked with ballooning financial aid debt and the inability to afford a higher education.

If anything, it does reflect an attempt by the Obama administration to address concerns about higher education affordability, while at the same time streamlining the government’s budget. The public is asked to make comments on the 2014-2015 FAFSA form at the Federal Register website.

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