On his wedding day, Owen Conley felt like he was marrying his best friend.
He dressed for the occasion in slacks, a matching tie and a vest. Beau Menard picked out their rings: both silver bands, one with a big shiny rock on top.
They went to the Orange County Magistrate; it was to be a lowkey affair. Two close friends were witnesses. They took a few photos and celebrated in a restaurant after.
They had fun with it, but they put enough effort into appearances to avoid suspicion about the marriage.
Conley and Menard are actually just friends. The rings were from Walmart. The outfits were from a thrift store. The photos were set in front of a Dumpster, and the meal was at McDonald’s after the 8 a.m. ceremony on a Monday.
They didn’t get married for love; they got married for money.
In order to qualify for federal financial aid and afford tuition, the two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students devised a work-around to eligibility requirements.
For some undergraduates, receiving financial aid for being married is extra income while their parents still support them. For others, it’s the difference between years of debt or a financially secure life.
Not legally wrong
One month before Conley was supposed to start classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, his parents sat him down for a talk.
“We’re not helping you financially anymore,” they said.
They did not have the financial know-how to save up for Conley’s tuition or the credit score to take out loans, and their shame kept them from telling Conley about it sooner. When Conley’s mom was his age, she had been cut off by her parents and paid her way through school. Why couldn’t he do the same?
Conley did not have money to pay tuition or the eligibility to receive financial aid. He took out private loans to pay for his first two years of tuition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which amounted to about $30,000 in debt.
Even though his parents were not contributing any money to his education, he was still a “dependent” for the purposes of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), meaning his aid was calculated based on how much money his parents could theoretically contribute to his education. The FAFSA is a form that determines student eligibility for financial aid.
So, when Conley was 19, he began researching ways to become an independent. That would mean his eligibility for aid would be reviewed regardless of his parents’ financial situation.
The FAFSA asks 10 questions to establish independent status. Among them: “Are you a veteran or currently serving in the U.S. armed forces?” “Do you have children?” “As of today, are you married?”
“The first two I definitely didn’t want to do,” Conley said.
As an out-of-state student with higher tuition, Menard also struggled to pay tuition.
The friends got married in January 2018, right before the second semester of Conley’s sophomore year. He said he filed the FAFSA the next day and received a $5,000 Pell Grant for the 2017-2018 school year. For their junior and senior years, Conley and Menard each received enough aid to cover tuition as well as off-campus living expenses.
Conley estimates that being married has saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Technically, there’s nothing legally wrong with doing so, said Kate Elengold, a UNC Assistant Professor of Law. Her work focuses on civil rights and student debt, among other topics.
“In my mind, I don’t see that as a loophole,” Elengold said.
She said that if the students legitimately got married, then they qualify as independents. The reason for the marriage has no bearing; the policy is clear.
Elengold argues for loosening the standards of who qualifies as an independent student. Some families are large and can’t afford tuition for each child. Some parents are not accepting of their queer-identifying children.
“Making the standards more stringent will harm more students,” she said, “rather than protecting against fraud.”
Who receives aid at UNC?
In spring 2017, their first year at UNC, Conley and Menard casually dated. They stopped talking when school ended, and that summer Conley came out as a trans man. Menard is nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns.
That fall they reconnected as friends. Ever since they had moved into houses near each other on Edwards Street in Chapel Hill, they had been hanging out every day, normally doing homework together.
The idea of marriage started as a late-night joke in October 2017. Wearing pajamas, Conley was writing a paper for a gender and sexuality class about a high school relationship that had been toxic. Menard was supportive, and Conley felt like they were bonding.
That got them on the conversation of their relationship, unpacking what had happened and moving forward.
They got on the topic of their shared financial stress from having to pay for tuition. Conley thought about a Vice article he had read about undergraduates who got married for financial aid.
“What if we got married?” Menard said.
They started Googling. At first, it was a way to distract themselves from homework. But they continued researching for months. If they got married, they would qualify for substantial aid. Their Expected Family Contribution, a measure of eligibility based on financial information, would amount to essentially zero.
More than $3 billion in federal loans, grants and work studies went to North Carolina higher education institutions for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 award years, according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson. The department doesn’t collect data about how many undergraduates receiving financial aid through FAFSA were married.
A department spokesperson did not comment on whether there is anything wrong with students getting married just to qualify for financial aid, but it said that it has no way of knowing whether they do so.
At UNC, an average of three undergraduate students per year between 2017 and 2021 received an aid offer after filing the FAFSA were independent just because they were married, according to a statement via Media Relations Manager Pace Sagester from UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Student Aid.
Sagester said more than 60% of UNC undergraduates receive some kind of aid offer after completing the FAFSA, and just under 7% of those students are independents.
“The university is not aware of any students who have gotten married for the sole purpose of increasing their financial aid package,” Sagester said.
Despite the financial benefits, the marriage has had unexpected negative ramifications for Conley and Menard.
”I do think being married did cause the downfall of our relationship,” Conley said.
Conley and Menard are now working out how to get a divorce. Menard graduated in May 2020, and Conley, delayed by a gap year, expects to graduate in this December. They’ve fallen out of touch except to talk about financial or marriage business.
But Conley said neither half of the couple regrets getting married. And the difficult parts of the experience don’t stop Conley from convincing other undergraduates to get married. Because of Conley, four students he knows have done it, and two more are considering it.
He said those couples were already planning on getting married for romantic reasons, but they decided to do it sooner for the financial benefits Conley told them about. He cautions them, but he encourages people to do it all the same, as a way to save money.
Now, Conley has paid off a significant amount of the loans he took out. He doesn’t have to worry about how he will pay bills. He has a good credit score. And he’s looking into buying a house in the next couple years.
“I’m able to live a life that I never thought I’d be able to live,” Conley said, “because of how much debt I was in two years ago, three years ago.”
UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.