Starting with the 2014-2015 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education will implement changes to collect parental information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, regardless of the parents’ marital status or gender.
“They’re redefining in some sense what a student’s parent is. I wish it were a more clear clarification, but they appear to be taking gender out of the issue of a parent. It’s no longer going to define a parent as a mother or a father,” said Paul Watson, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Financial Aid Director.
If the legal parents, biological or adoptive, are living together, they are required to include income and other information for the dependent student’s application. Once submitted, this information will be used as a means to calculate the student’s expected family contribution and ultimately the student’s eligibility for federal aid.
“My question is—how is this going to work? Stepparents are always going to question how they are financially responsible. Now the government sees a need to look at the household and its resources because everyone is contributing to the expenses for the student’s education,” Watson said.
When plans to revise the current FAFSA application were released, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained, “Students should be able to apply for federal aid within a system that incorporates their unique family dynamics.”
The new application is meant to ensure better distribution of funds, as well as provide a sense of inclusivity that reflects the diversity in families around the United States.
“Above all, I think the Department of Education is trying to recognize the change in the nuclear family throughout the country,” Watson said. “Some individual states define marriage in a way that may not always be recognized the same way through the eyes of the federal government.”
Upon the start of the new application, Watson explained that the biggest confusion will be talking about parents being married and the identity of the legal parents in this situation. The new FAFSA form will use terms like “Parent 1 and Parent 2” to discriminate between each individual. Gender-specific terms like mother and father will be eliminated.
The new application, however, will not impact a majority of the applicants who need financial aid. This could be because they are independent students or because they are dependent students whose parents are married to each other or are unmarried and do not live together. The eligibility of some dependent students around the country will change.
“The formulas to determine the amount of aid given to any student are not being changed,” Watson said. “It’s really hard to know how much of a change this is going to be until it happens. We don’t have data out yet, and there’s nothing to study about what the impact is going to be on families.”
Currently the U.S. Department of Education is working on the development and layout of the 2014- 2015 FAFSA applications. They will be adjusting both instructions and questions. Most recently, significant updates have been made to the electronic application that makes filling out certain sections more user-friendly.
“It remains to be seen how big of an issue people see this is going to be. Things are not as simple as they were many years ago, but the purpose of financial aid hasn’t changed or moved. There will be some confusion, but people will learn to adjust,” Watson said.