Same-Sex Parents Avoid Financial Aid Bias

Harvard has taken steps to ensure fair treatment for same-sex parents

Though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA and a key document in college financial aid applications, does not recognize same-sex couples, students at Harvard with parents of the same sex have been relatively unaffected by the bureaucratic hurdle, according to Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue.

The FAFSA, a federally sponsored application to determine eligibility for financial aid, was criticized in a report published by the Center for American Progress as the cause of “distortions [that] can have important implications for members of families headed by a same-sex couple applying for financial aid.” These potential distortions include instances that both help and harm the size of a student’s financial aid package.

While Harvard requires that potentially eligible students complete the FAFSA, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid also mandates that students submit a separate form that accounts for factors not included on the FAFSA.

“What the FAFSA asks is important for federal funds, but it’s not defining in terms of what a Harvard student receives,” Donahue said. “In the context of our generous financial aid policy, we at Harvard expect both of a student’s parents to contribute to the extent they’re able. You can imagine all the permutations of all Harvard families, including same-sex parents.”

The federal government forbids students who receive financial aid packages deemed overly generous from their college from receiving federal assistance. This is common at Harvard where financial aid packages are often more generous than the federal standard, Donahue said.

Uncommon family situations at Harvard that do not fit into the FAFSA extend beyond same-sex parents.

“We have a whole lot of different kinds of situations and we really try to apply our financial aid policy consistently across them,” Donahue said.

The exclusion of same-sex parents from the FAFSA has garnered national attention in recent weeks after the publication of the Center for American Progress report.

“All applicants for federal financial aid for higher education should have equal access to that aid based solely on financial need,” reads the report, authored by Crosby Burns, a special assistant for the organization that sponsored the report. “Such an approach is fair, effective, and efficient...”

“It was so stressful and so frustrating to try to fit our family into those forms when so clearly it wasn’t going to fit,” a student with two mothers and two step-mothers told The New York Times earlier this month. “You feel like you are lying no matter what you do.”

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at