DOMA Ruling Prompts Change in Federal Student Aid Rules

According to new guidance released on Friday, the U.S. Education Department will now recognize the marriages of same-sex couples for the purposes of distributing federal financial aid. The policy change was made in accordance with the Supreme Court's decision in June, which struck down the section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibited agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Students' marital status affects both their eligibility for federal financial aid and how much they receive. The marital status of their parents also affects financial aid when the students are dependent on them, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Under the new rules, the department will recognize any marriage of a student or parent that is recognized as legal in the jurisdiction where it took place – regardless of where the couple resides or where the aid will be used. The standards apply both to independent students seeking aid as well as the parents of dependent students.

The new policy takes effect immediately although the actual financial aid forms that reflect the changes will not be officially released until January 1.

Students who are affected by the changes and have already filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, for the current academic year have the option of filing a correction and having their aid adjusted accordingly. Starting in the 2014-2015 academic year, the changes will be required.

Even before the Supreme Court's DOMA decision, the Education Department announced it would adopt gender-neutral descriptions of parents on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting in the 2014-2015 academic year. The department said at the time it was changing its interpretation of the Higher Education Act to allow the FAFSA to collect income and asset information for both of a dependent student's legal parents if the parents live together, regardless of their marital status or gender.

"We must continue to ensure that every single American is treated equally in the eyes of the law, and this important guidance for students is another step forward in that effort," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "As students fill out their FAFSA this coming year, I'm thrilled they'll be able to do so in a way that is more fair and just."

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, told Inside Higher Ed that while he supports the new policy, it represented only an incremental boost for gay rights, noting that the majority of states prohibit same-sex marriage. He noted that the federal government, including the Education Department, should do much more to make sure gay students were treated equally and fairly on college campuses.


Related Links

U.S. Education Department Dear Colleague Letter

U.S. Education Department Press Release

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Inside Higher Ed