The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) isn’t known for being easy to complete. For students with two same-sex parents or with same-sex spouses, however, filling out the form accurately can be nearly impossible.
The form requires most students under the age of 24 to give information about their parents, including their marital status. “What is your parents’ marital status as of today?” the form asks. Compared to items about gross income and net worth, this question – number 58 on this year’s form – seems like an easy one. But there are only four choices: “Married or Remarried; Single; Divorced or Separated; or Widowed.” Elsewhere, the form asks students the same question about themselves, and offers the same four options.
Because the FAFSA is a federal form, it must use the federal definition of marriage. Under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that still means one man and one woman. Married couples who don’t fit that definition cannot be listed as married on the FAFSA. The form gives spaces to record information for a “mother/stepmother” and for a “father/stepfather,” but it offers no blanks for those who need to put in a second mother or a second father.
According to a recent, and thoughtful, New York Times article on the problem, children living with two legal parents of the same sex are supposed to fill out the form as if their parents were divorced. Students who are themselves married to partners of the same sex are advised to complete the form as if they were merely living with their partners.
The result is a narrow model that lapses into arbitrary and irrational results whenever students fail to fall within its unrealistic definitions. Simply because of their parents’ or spouses’ genders, students coming from the same financial backgrounds can end up receiving vastly different amounts of aid.
DOMA is quickly and rightly falling by the wayside because of its fundamental unfairness and its lack of grounding in any sound legal principles. A federal district court in Massachusetts and two bankruptcy courts have found the law unconstitutional, and the Obama administration has said it will not defend the statute on appeal. On the legislative front, a measure called the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA, is currently moving through the Senate Judiciary Committee. If Congress doesn’t manage to take action first, I believe the Supreme Court will eventually confirm that DOMA is invalid.
The issues raised by the FAFSA, however, show that there is also a more pedestrian reason for eliminating DOMA. As states, municipalities and individuals come to accept gay couples and gay parents, the law is becoming increasingly impractical. By attempting to address an imaginary society in which marriages involve only people of different sexes, forms like the FAFSA leave government agencies unable to deal with reality as it exists now.
Like it or not, same-sex marriages have already become a part of our social fabric. States that permit such unions are not going to turn back, and others will join them. Thousands of same-sex couples are legally married already; forms like the FAFSA need to be able to reflect that. It makes no sense for two college students in identical financial circumstances to receive very different amounts of financial aid, merely because one comes from a household headed by a same-sex couple. The law is catching up to this, and when it does, FAFSA will too.