A month or so ago, our column dealt with the propriety of colleges and universities requiring a stepparent to complete aid forms for a stepchild to whom the stepparent has no legal obligation to support or educate. We solicited input from our readers and, some five hundred sixty-two responses later, here’s what some had to say:
AN ENROLLMENT DEAN IN PENNSYLVANIA: Your reader's concern is well taken. In my 21 years as a Director of Financial Aid at a college, I have dealt with many of the college aid programs and have yet to have parents support the federal government's policy in this regard. For that reason, I advise parents to contact their members of Congress who passed the law which requires colleges and universities to use this methodology in analyzing a child's needs.
I do not believe the stepparent has financial responsibility for college costs unless the noncustodial parent is deceased or the stepparent has been present long term and in, effect, is the "other parent". So why does Congress assume that the stepparent has responsibility instead of the natural parent? I suspect that verification of federal income and tax information is easier if the system presumes that the natural custodial parent and stepparent are a "new" family who usually file joint tax returns. But only members of Congress can answer the question definitively.
A FINANCIAL AID ADVISOR IN FLORIDA: A number of years ago, only the birth parents' income was considered for financial aid; however, the bitterness of the divorce often left the noncustodial parent unwilling to provide financial information to the former spouse – and therefore to the children. While the stepparent may have no legal obligation to the child, he or she contributes funds or services to the stepchild's support. In the financial aid community, the custodial parent -- and stepparent spouse -- usually provides more than 50% of the student's support and therefore claims the student as part of their household. Household size is an important factor in determining financial aid. In my view, the current process is easier to administer and is fairer to the taxpayers who ultimately pay the bill.
A READER WITH EXPERIENCE IN FINANCIAL AID: Having spent several years in the financial aid department of a community college, I read with interest your article regarding a student's financial aid application considering his stepparent's financial situation. In the financial aid world, ALL financial assets (direct and indirect) must be taken into consideration when a person applies for federal financial aid. Although the student may not be receiving any direct aid from the stepparent toward the financing of his college education, the stepparent's income does provide some indirect benefits -- such as room and board, and sometimes transportation, clothing, medical, etc. In addition, the financial input into the custodial parent's life by the stepparent theoretically makes it easier for the custodial parent to provide for the child's college education.
The rule of thumb is that regardless who is the custodial parent, all forms of income must be considered in the application for federal student aid. And even if the student's natural father had actually been providing more than 50% of the student's support -- though the student was not living with him at the time, the noncustodial parent's income -- and his spouse's income as well -- would be considered. But this only covers applications for federal student aid (Pell Grants, Federally Subsidized and Unsubsidized Student Loans, Direct Loans, etc.) because when application for state aid is made, not all states require this information.
ANOTHER FINANCIAL AID PROFESSIONAL: Stepparent information has been required for financial aid as long as I have been helping people with the forms. I get this question several times a year, and to understand the reasoning you need to understand "need analysis." The Department of Education has devised the formulas that are applied to the information the student and parents supply to determine the families' financial strength. All monies that come into the household are considered. When the relative strength of the family has been determined, the result, called EFC, is compared with the student's school cost to determine what kind of and how much aid that student needs to attend the school he or she has chosen. Who is obligated to pay is not determined by the school or the Department of Education. If the family decides not to assist the student, he or she may apply for a student loan on his or her own. More information can be found at http://www.ed.gov/finaid.html.
A READER FROM CALIFORNIA: I, too, have come up against this and don't have any answers to the rationale behind it. The second half my son by my first marriage's junior year and all of his senior year were financed by FAFSA, grants, and his savings. The FAFSA form required my financial info as well as that of my current husband who has no financial obligation to my son. In so doing, our Expected Family Contribution (EFC) was based on our combined income which is totally unfair. We sent personal letters to the heads of the financial aid departments of the schools and the people who actually reviewed the FAFSA and other forms submitted to the colleges. Although they understood, it doesn't change how FAFSA reviews the situation. Maybe one day FAFSA can be revised to allow a step household to submit just the financial information of the biological parent.
Our questions remain: How can the Department of Education consider stepparent income in determining aid for a child when state governments can not require a stepparent to educate a stepchild? Doesn't this rationale sometimes get the noncustodial parent off the hook and place added pressure on the child?
Jan Collins is an award-winning writer. Jan Warner is a matrimonial, tax, and elder law attorney. Both are based in Columbia, South Carolina. Flying Solo can be found on the Internet at http://www.flyingsolo.com.
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