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Financial-Aid Applications to Seek More Income Details From Parents

Students filling out federal student-aid forms next year will for the first time be asked for income and other data about their parents if they live together, regardless of their parents' gender or marital status.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the change to the 2014-15 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as FAFSA, today. Under the revised format, dependent applicants will have the option of describing their parents' marital status as "unmarried and both parents living together" and the question will refer to "Parent 1" and "Parent 2" rather than gender-specific terms, such as mother and father.

The move is intended to be more inclusive and reflect the diversity of today's families, which may include same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples living together, and get a better picture of a family's finances, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a press call this afternoon.

"It will allow us to more accurately use and fairly assess students' need for aid," said Duncan. "All students should be able to apply for federal student aid in a way that considers their unique family dynamic. These changes will allow us to calculate aid eligibility based on what a student's whole family is able to contribute and ensure that our limited taxpayer resources are better targeted to those student families with the most need."

Now, FAFSA only asks for information about students' parents if the parents are married. This change will not affect the long-standing provision that when a dependent student's parents are divorced, only information on the parent the student lived with for the greater portion of the year preceding the date of completing the FAFSA is to be reported, according to the department.

While no estimates are available, Duncan said the changes will not affect the vast majority of applicants. By including additional sources of income from a second parent, most of those students affected would see a decrease in the amount of need-based Title IV federal student aid under the new format. In a small number of instances, the student would be eligible for more aid because it could change the Estimated Family Contribution calculation with an additional person in the family household.

The current FAFSA with gender-specific terms has hindered the government from being able to collect accurate data about both parents, said Duncan. "The changes will result in fairer treatment of all families by eliminating all standing inequities based on parents' relationship with each other, instead of their relationship with their child," said Duncan.

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said in the call that his organization advocated for the FAFSA changes, and some colleges have already instituted the new language in their aid applications.

"Part of measuring family need is to ensure that we do it in a way that recognizes different family circumstances and gets a true picture of how they can pay for college," said Draeger. The FAFSA changes are a step in the right direction in simplifying the application process and strengthening the integrity of the student-aid program, he said.

When asked what prompted the department to make the FAFSA change now and if cost-savings was a factor, Duncan said: "It's the right thing to do. Cost savings had nothing to do with it. We don't know if it will cost more or less. It more accurate. It is more inclusive, fairer, and much better reflects the reality of young people's family circumstances."

After the department made changes a few years ago to simplify the FAFSA, there was an uptick in applications, and Duncan said he hopes this move will also open the door for more students to apply who might have seen the current form as a barrier.


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