For Children of Same-Sex Couples, a Student Aid Maze

It took five attempts for one prospective college student and her mother to fill out the 106-question federal form that would determine whether she would be eligible for financial aid. And that was not just because the form was frustratingly complicated. What tripped them up was the fact that the student had two legal mothers — and the form had room for only one.

Further confusing matters, her mothers had since split and married other women; they have six children among them. "It was so stressful and so frustrating to try to fit our family into those forms when so clearly it wasn’t going to fit," said the student, who is now a senior at a university in Illinois and wanted to remain anonymous to keep her family’s financial affairs private. "You feel like you are lying no matter what you do."

The aid form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the single most important document in determining how much and what type of financial aid students receive. But the form, informally called Fafsa, has not kept up with the changing composition of families, in large part because the federal agency that issues it has to abide by the Defense of Marriage Act, which recognizes only heterosexual marriage. Because these students cannot fully portray their family’s finances, the amount of aid they receive may not fairly reflect their needs.

“In some cases, they are robbed of aid they would have otherwise received, and in other instances they benefit from it,” said Crosby Burns, special assistant for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, a research organization that recently published a report about these issues in the financial aid process.

This is not solely an issue for children of same-sex parents. Any children with unusual family circumstances — whether their parent is in jail, involved in a messy divorce or simply refuses to provide support — can have trouble filling out the form. No numbers are available on the number of students from gay and lesbian families who are affected, though Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation law and policy issues, has calculated that about 220,000 children under age 18 are being raised by same-sex parents.

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