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WASHINGTON -- Beginning in 2014, students whose parents are unmarried but living together, as well as the children of married gay and lesbian couples, will list both parents when applying for federal financial aid, the Education Department announced Monday.

Under current policy, dependent students whose legal parents are unmarried but living together have been able to list only one parent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the gateway for federal grants and loans to attend college. As a result, the federal government has considered only the income and assets of the listed parent -- the same as it would if the student’s parents were divorced and had an unequal custody arrangement.

Beginning in 2014, the form will provide “unmarried and both parents living together” as an option for students. (The option will also cover students whose parents are legally married and of the same sex, since the federal government is prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages.) “Mother/stepmother” and “father/stepfather” will be replaced on the form by “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he couldn’t estimate how many students would be affected by the change. But students whose parents are living together and unmarried, or in a same-sex marriage, could easily be eligible for less federal financial aid after the change takes effect. That’s because the federal government will now assume that both parents, not just one, will help cover the cost of a college education.

A study from the Center for American Progress in 2011, "Unequal Aid," found that not counting the income of both parents in a same-sex partnership usually meant their financial need was overestimated. In other cases, it could be underestimated, because family size is part of the formula used to determine eligibility for federal aid.

Duncan said the change would make applying for financial aid a fairer process. It will help make sure that financial aid goes to students and families who need it, Duncan said. And it will create an “inclusive form that reflects the diversity of American families.”

Advocacy groups have pressed for the change, saying that children of same-sex couples could easily be confused when filling out the form and give up entirely. In a larger sense, the change -- which gives a federal nod to the financial realities of same-sex marriages without conferring federal recognition -- was valuable validation, said Jess McDonald, communications manager for Campus Pride, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

“Though the FAFSA changes are small, they speak volumes to the cultural change and progress that the LGBTQ community has made over time,” McDonald said. “We are happy that the Department of Education is validating LGBTQ families and experiences, and we hope that others will follow suit.”

But changing from “mother/stepmother” and “father/stepfather” to “parent 1” and “parent 2” is more than a cosmetic change, said Crosby Burns, a policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

Two years ago, Burns wrote the report on the difficulties the children of same-sex couples encounter when applying for financial aid. He called on the Education Department to modify the FAFSA to use gender-neutral terms and to take the issues of families headed by same-sex partners into account as much as possible without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“The Department of Education will no longer have its hands tied, and it can fully treat children with same-sex parents just like children with different-sex parents,” Burns said.

With the change, the Education Department weighs in on a question colleges have been confronting for a decade, as more states have recognized same-sex marriage and a growing number of children of gay and lesbian couples apply to college. Because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, financial aid offices often see income tax returns that appear to be from a single-parent family. Colleges have encouraged applicants to be open about their family situations even if the federal forms don’t seem designed for such disclosures.

The change will make the form simpler for students, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. And he said it echoes changes colleges have already made to make more accurate determinations of eligibility for aid. “We’ve been urging our federal system to keep up,” Draeger said. “This is a great first step, but there’s still more to do.”

But the next steps -- such as addressing the situation of the children of same-sex couples who are not the biological or adoptive children of both parents -- hinge on changes to federal law that are out of the Education Department’s hands.

Those changes, though, could come soon. The Supreme Court could soon overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which would clear the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. By the time the FAFSA changes take effect in 2014, the Defense of Marriage Act could be a moot point, Burns said, meaning the Education Department could use joint tax returns from parents in same-sex marriages for the first time.

“I want to applaud the Education Department for getting ahead of the game here and reading the tea leaves,” Burns said.

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