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Letter to Arne Duncan, Secretary of United States Department of Education


Location: Washington, DC

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) today called for a level playing field for students seeking financial aid. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Kerry said reforms are needed to end policies that discriminate against the children of same-sex couples and gay and transgendered students seeking federal financial assistance to attend college.

"Reports that kids who want to go to college are facing financial barriers just because of who they are or their parents were born to be are downright un-American. We can do better," said Sen. Kerry.

Because federal law treats same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples, the Department of Education often does not fully recognize both same-sex parents in determining funding levels for student aid, resulting in the children of same-sex parents receiving unequal financial aid. Students in same sex marriages often face similar distortions in the distribution of aid. Additionally, transgendered students encounter barriers with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because of gender markers or name mismatches between their applications and other government records.

The full text of Sen. Kerry's letter is below:

December 14, 2011

The Honorable Arne Duncan


United States Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Room 7W301

Washington, DC 20202-1510

Dear Secretary Duncan:

I am writing regarding concerns over the accessibility and distribution of federal financial aid to families headed by same-sex couples and to gay and transgender applicants. I hope we can work together to rectify this situation.

As higher education has become increasingly valuable to maintaining a competitive and skilled workforce, it has also become increasingly expensive. Financial aid in the form of loans, grants, and scholarships provides students with opportunities for higher learning that may not otherwise be accessible to them. For its part, the federal government assigned more than $134 billion in financial aid to more than 14 million students last year, making it the single largest grantee of aid.

As you know, in order to apply for federal aid students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which asks detailed questions regarding the financial means and obligations of the student and the student's family. The Department of Education runs that information through a defined formula in order to determine the amount of aid for any particular student applicant.

However, it has come to my attention that this process can result in either more or less aid for families headed by same-sex couples compared with families headed by heterosexual couples, depending on the circumstances. Additionally, the application process can result in delays or denial of aid for gay and transgender applicants based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Unclear application guidelines and a benefits formula that is skewed by discriminatory state and federal laws create confusion during the application process and can lead to unequal allocation of taxpayer-funded financial aid.

First, discriminatory laws -- in particular the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) -- treat families headed by two mothers or two fathers differently than families headed by a mother and a father. When applied to federal financial aid applications, taxpayer-funded financial aid is often being misallocated based on sexual orientation when it should be based solely on financial need.

For example, if a child with same-sex parents applies for financial aid, the FAFSA will only consider one parent's income and assets into the financial aid formula. In the eyes of the FAFSA, this will artificially increase that child's need for aid and will result in more financial aid for college expenses.

In other instances, however, families headed by same-sex couples will receive less aid than they would have otherwise received, or no aid at all. For example, step-children to a same-sex partner are often not counted as family members on the FAFSA, leading financial aid administrators to overestimate the financial assistance that the family is capable of providing to a single child. Additionally, instances in which the student applying is married to someone of the same sex can lead to similar distortions in the distribution of aid.

Equally disturbing are reports that transgender students are being disqualified for aid altogether because the process doesn't seem to allow for conflicting gender identification on public documents. We should encourage all students to pursue a higher education and turning them away because the bureaucracy can't "compute" their gender is just wrong.

In order to maintain a credible and fair system, the allocation of aid must be free from discrimination and should be based on consistent financial criteria for all applicants. Other factors like sexual orientation and gender identity should play absolutely no role in determining the fair and appropriate amount of federal aid a student is eligible to receive.

Therefore, I request that you consider ways to clarify the FAFSA for applicants who have same-sex parents and for students who are gay and transgender. I also ask that you consider the whole of the financial aid process -- beginning to end -- from the perspective of these applicants and make any possible modifications that would improve the application and reward procedures for all applicants.

Federal aid should be determined based on the legitimate needs and real financial circumstances of each applicant and should be applied in a consistent way. The current system does not meet that standard.

Thank you for your consideration of these issues. I look forward to your response.


John F. Kerry

United States Senator

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