LGBTQ Students Face Barriers to Getting Student Loans Without Parents’ Participation
The day Salvador turned 18, he left home for good. It was February of his senior year in high school in a southern state and he had nowhere to go, but he knew he couldn’t stay at home where his Catholic parents vocally disapproved of him being gay.
“There was… a lot of crying, a lot of fights, a lot of different drama,” Salvador, who used a pseudonym to preserve his anonymity, told Teen Vogue. “There were a lot of threats of conversion [therapy]-type things… Sending me to Mexico and stuff like that.”
So Salvador crashed with a friend and then bounced around for the rest of his senior year as a homeless student. No one in his family had gone to college, but he knew he wanted to apply. “I knew that I was good at studying,” he said. “And I knew that I was good at school. Not even good at it… that was my entire thing, just being really good at school and being really involved in school and student government and different student orgs.”
College acceptances started to pour in from top schools across the country. Then it was “Ivy Day,” when the Ivy League schools sent their acceptances. Columbia and Dartmouth both offered Salvador a place in their upcoming class. “I was on top of the world,” he said. “Screaming at the top of my lungs, driving down the road in my car, and genuinely very happy for the first time in a long time.”
But immediately, a big question loomed: how would he pay for it? It was more complicated than just applying for financial aid, though, because Salvador was no longer in contact with his parents.
The federal government considers parents’ income as a factor in all financial aid offers until a student is 24 years old, even if the parent isn’t contributing to their child’s education or has kicked their kid out. A student’s parents are legally required to sign their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Without that signature — and parental income information — “the application will be considered ‘rejected,’” according to the Department of Education. “You can’t be considered independent of your parents just because they refuse to help you with this process,” says the official StudentAid.gov FAQ.
So where does that leave students like Salvador or other queer students who are disowned or kicked out of their homes when they come out? The federal government’s answer is they can apply for “independent” status, which can be granted to an emancipated minor or a homeless student. But getting that independent status can be extremely difficult, especially for a student who hasn’t necessarily been kicked out or officially emancipated, but whose parents still have no intention of signing the paperwork or helping them pay for college.
LGBTQ+ students across the country are likely to be disproportionately affected by this. In a Trevor Project/Human Rights Commission survey, 26% of LGBTQ+ youth respondents reported that their parents’ or family’s lack of acceptance was the most difficult problem in their lives. According to data from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than other youth.
The difficulty obtaining independent status is nothing new. It has been a problem since at least the early 2000s. John (also a pseudonym) grew up in the mid-aughts with an evangelical minister father who wanted to send him to conversion therapy after finding out John was gay. John managed to resist, in part because his mother disagreed with his father. When he started college, he was granted significant financial aid after filling out the FAFSA with his parents.
But the situation at home escalated to the point where John soon left and began couch-surfing with friends when he wasn’t living in dorms at school. By the time he needed to reapply for financial aid for his sophomore year, he and his parents were no longer in contact. “That was when I was put in the position where I was not able to fill out their portion of FAFSA,” he said. “But if I wanted to continue [going to college], I would have had to.”
John said his a financial aid counselor told him that in order to be declared a homeless student he would have to stay at a homeless shelter, something he felt was unsafe, more so because he is gay and most of the shelters in his area were run by religious organizations. Instead, he dropped out of school.
When John was 25, old enough to automatically qualify for independent status, he reenrolled in community college but didn’t graduate and ended up becoming a software engineer. Today, he is a successful engineer, working 40 hours a week for a Fortune 500 company, and heavily involved in his community.
John is frustrated that the barriers in his college journey are still there for other students more than a decade later. “I know that there must be other people out there who didn’t get the same opportunities I had,” John said. “I feel sad that this hasn’t been addressed and to know that there are kids who are going through the same problems but not finding an alternative path.”
Another student, Logan (who asked to use a pseudonym to protect their privacy), had a similar experience. They had parental support filling out the FAFSA before their freshman and sophomore years but were kicked out of their home before FAFSAs were due for their junior year. “I ended up having to call my significant other at the time to come get me because I was thrown out literally into a thunderstorm and locked out of the house,” they said.
Logan applied for and was granted independent status, but that experience triggered mental health challenges. “The punchline of that is I had to continuously relive the trauma of getting kicked out to put through the paperwork to my university to say, Yes, I am homeless. Yes, I have no parental support. This is what happened to me and why I no longer have parental support.”
It was the same story for the following year’s FAFSA application. “It was like, I don’t understand why you guys have to make me say it over and over again. Every year. It’s like, it hasn’t stopped. I’m still an independent student. I still am homeless,” they said.
Today, that is one change in the FAFSA process. In December 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which would reduce the length of the application and revise some aspects of how independent status is determined. One provision allows a student with independent status to keep that designation moving forward. Another essentially broadens the definition of “homeless” and adds additional pathways to prove homelessness, like a letter from a school district liaison or a director of a homeless youth drop-in center.
However, the federal government already delayed implementing the law once and is already warning that they may miss the deadline for releasing the new form on October 1, 2023. Also, many students are unaware of the changes and how they would affect them.
“Our concern is there are a lot of young people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of it [who] might not even be aware [that the form has] a broader definition [now],” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of the national nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, one of the leading advocates in education for homeless youth. “And we want to make sure that they get the benefits of this new law, specifically the homeless [and those] at risk of homelessness, and don’t get routed to a process that takes longer where there’s more discretion at the part of the financial aid administrator.”
The federal government is also introducing a new “provisional independent” status, which would allow students to complete the form without their parents’ information.
Even with these changes, experts say there is still an extreme amount of confusion over independent status and a worrying lack of oversight to ensure administrators adhere to the new rules once they’re more broadly implemented.
“There’s so much work left to be done,” Duffield said. “Just a couple of weeks ago… one of our staff was dealing with a situation with a young man who’s being asked for all sorts of papers he shouldn’t be asked for, and saying, Okay, what happens now? We’ve done all the advocacy. Where’s the oversight? If a school isn’t following these procedures, what is this young man’s recourse?”
The financial aid application process is extremely complicated even if a student has a financially literate, patient parent. Without that support, it can be difficult to get independent status approval even if the student qualifies. “We’re asking them to jump through truly a lot of hoops in order to get to college,” said Margaux Cowden, chief programs officer for the Point Foundation, a scholarship fund for LGBTQ+ youth. “You really need to be either an incredible self-advocate or you need to have someone who’s supporting you with that.”
Meanwhile, students all over the country are receiving college acceptances right now and making real-life decisions about where they can afford to attend.
Logan, who successfully graduated college with independent status and is now studying for their PhD in the United Kingdom, said it is “infuriating” that other queer students are still going through the same thing they did. “So many of us end up outside our homes before we’re 24,” they said. “The assumption that your parents are going to pay for your education is extremely outdated, especially for people who are kicked out of their homes or disowned.”
Thanks to a guidance counselor at his high school, Salvador successfully navigated the thorny process to apply for independent status. He chose an Ivy League university and ended up being awarded a prestigious full-ride scholarship from a leading LGBTQ+ organization.
“I don’t have to pay anything for my tuition or anything, so that’s really, really great,” Salvador said. “Anything related to school, I usually can get it supplemented or reimbursed…, which is a really, really, really big blessing in my life.”
The support has also allowed Salvador to make decisions not solely based on money. Salvador briefly studied computer science in an attempt to feel more secure financially but soon realized he hated it and decided to follow his heart.
“So now I want to be a PhD [and] professor,” he said proudly. He’s excited to teach and mentor students in the future. “My story is definitely an extreme, but it also happens to a whole lot of…people whose parents are very traditional,” Salvador said. “I think I was just in a very fortunate series of events that allowed me to… get into all the places I’m at.”
Nora Neus is an Emmy-nominated journalist whose reporting has appeared in CNN, VICE News, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, and more.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.