A recent study has drawn national media attention for its finding that financial aid at universities is often distorted for students with certain family circumstances, but administrators said the University has policies designed to ensure awards are consistent across demographic groups.
In accordance with federal law, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) does not account for the income and assets of both parents in many family situations — including same-sex couples, adoptive parents and parents who are divorced or unmarried — so students from these backgrounds often receive inflated aid awards, according to the study by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy think tank. Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said Yale tries to correct for this distortion by recognizing “special family circumstances” when determining a student’s need for scholarship.
Storlazzi and two other financial aid experts interviewed said an expansion of the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) definition of marriage, currently stated as the union between one man and one woman, would make the FAFSA form more inclusive for families in special situations, but they added they do not expect the law to change in the near future because of the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage.
“It will be some time before the federal government acknowledges the reality of how folks are actually living their lives,” Storlazzi said. “But Yale strives to determine a fair family contribution that takes into account all of the unique circumstances of the family, however it might be described or defined.”
In addition to the FAFSA, Storlazzi said the University also requests that students complete College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and the specialized Yale Application for Aid, which ask families to provide the financial information of each parent without specifying their genders, their marital status or whether they live together. The CSS Profile asks for information from “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” rather than using the terms “father” and “mother” as on the FAFSA, Storlazzi said.
Maria Trumpler, director of Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources and a senior lecturer of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, said that she has never been approached by same-sex parents of prospective or current students about financial aid issues.
“Happily, places like Yale are pretty individualized both in terms of admissions and financial aid, so there are usually not many problems,” Trumpler said, adding that she expects DOMA to be repealed or declared unconstitutional in the next two years.
Haley Chitty, director of communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators — an organization that serves as a forum for student financial aid issues — said students in “unique family situations” are only asked to provide the information of the parent who earns the highest household income on the FAFSA. While the U.S. Department of Education has some discretion to make sure these students get aid that is representative of their family situations, it does not eliminate all distortions, Chitty said.
“I think this [issue] speaks to [the fact that] the family structure is changing and that the current [federal financial aid] application does not necessarily reflect the complexity of all the family situations we are seeing today,” Chitty said. “The current FAFSA [form] leaves some student populations trying to put a round peg in a square hole.”
Chitty said he thinks universities could better inform students in unique family situations about how the federal regulations impact them. Without specific guidance or instructions from the government, students and families in these special situations are often left to complete the FAFSA on their own, said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid, a website that specializes in informing students and their families about financial aid policies.
A federal judge ruled in July 2010 that the definition of marriage according to DOMA is unconstitutional, but the law remains in effect pending appeals.