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Parent Trap

July 6, 2005

If financial aid officers want to get money in the right pockets, they should invite same-sex parents to be honest about their families, according to Heather McDonnell, director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College.

McDonnell told aid administrators Tuesday at the annual meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, in New York City, that they need to identify same-sex parents, even if parents are not recognized as legal guardians by their states. McDonnell and a colleague said that aid offices need to reach out to gay and lesbian parents because they deserve to be recognized, but also because ignoring them tends to result in their children getting more aid than they are entitled to.

She said that it is impossible to dole out financial aid fairly if the true nature of a family is hidden. Experts estimate that 250,000 students who have graduated from college have gay or lesbian parents, and that those numbers are likely to increase dramatically in the years ahead. As a result, McDonnell said, "the issue is coming to a campus near you."

McDonnell, who along with her partner put three children through college, said she’s "seen some [students from same-sex parents] receiving far too much support. My purpose is to make sure that money goes where it’s most needed.”

Because most same-sex couples cannot file joint tax returns, McDonnell said, it will often appear to a financial aid office that an incoming student is from a single parent household, when, in fact, he or she is not. She said that that situation often results in misallocated aid. “I want that dollar that came out of my desk to go to the kid that needs it.”

But audience members wanted to know how they’re supposed to recognize same-sex parents when the Internal Revenue Service does not. “You have to invite them to join in an honest conversation,” said Ken Schneck, assistant dean of student affairs at Sarah Lawrence. One way that McDonnell has done that was by adding an "alternative families" section to her college's financial aid Web page.

The idea is to encourage the families to reveal their situation to the institution, even if it does not show up on forms filed with the state or federal government. "Please report the income and assets of your family ‘as if’ marriage has taken place," the site reads. It also invites “alternative families” to contact the office directly to discuss how their applications should be handled.

A few aid administrators in the audience said they thought it would be difficult to get same-sex parents to file together for institutional financial aid because the parents would be afraid of how their information might be translated onto the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which assumes a parent is either single, married, divorced, or widowed.

At that point, McDonnell said, she can use information from both parents to accurately allocate aid from Sarah Lawrence, and then give the federal government information as she sees fit. “Invite them to tell you the real situation, then you as the professional will sort out the horrid details of, ‘How do I get the family through a FAFSA?’” she said.

Some of the audience members still thought it would be difficult to convince same-sex parents to disclose their family situation, and Schneck admitted that most institutions will have more trouble with that than Sarah Lawrence, which he said has publicly “opened its arms.”

He offered some ways to begin establishing an atmosphere of openness.

One of the most important things to do, he said, is to "un-gender" language on forms. Rather than using “mother and father,” forms can easily use “parent one and parent two,” he said. “As soon as a form suggests gender,” which FAFSA does, “you’re not going to get the real information,” McDonnell added.

Another thing that Schneck said he has found promotes openness, is changing “Parents’ Weekend” to “Family Weekend.” He said that same-sex parents would be invited to parents’ weekend anyway, but said he has found that using the term “family” instead seems to be recognized by many people as an invitation for families of all sorts. “The ‘parent’ does imply this [traditional] binary system,” he said. “People think, ‘By removing that Ozzie and Harriet from Omaha sense, you’ve invited me,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said that the population of college-age children from same-sex parents is expected to peak around 2016, so aid administrators had better start working to officially recognize these families. “It’s the system’s fault for not inviting them,” she said. “But the bottom line is that if you can encourage them to join an honest conversation, you might save the institution’s resources.”

 

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