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The typical "American-dream" family - complete with pet, SUV and soccer-mom - has in recent decades given way to an increasing number of divorced and single-parent families. As a result, colleges like Penn may have to rethink traditional formulas in financial aid and admissions.

According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, 14.2 percent of Penn's class of 2011 came from divorced or separated households. With this number increasing every year, Penn's Student Financial Services is factoring in more complex family situations in aid determination.

"Cases of divorce or separation are among our most difficult, and have to be dealt with individually," Financial Aid director Bill Schilling said. "We try to determine each family's ability to contribute, based not just on their taxable income but on all of the information we have about their circumstances." Non-custodial parents are also expected to contribute to their child's education.

SFS considers many factors in making their aid offers in these cases including the time elapsed since the divorce occurred, the current marriage status of the custodial parent, and whether child abuse played a role in family history or not.

"Ignoring a student's parents' financial circumstances, or a non-custodial parent's circumstances," may result in less aid being awarded to candidates who need it - potentially shifting aid resources to students from higher-income backgrounds, Schilling added.

But students don't always agree with SFS's definition of what should factor into aid.

Engineering freshman Miguel Gonzalez, who is on financial aid and whose parents are divorced, said aid should depend on the custodial parent's income rather than factoring in the non-custodial parent.

"Sometimes, it can be a hassle to get information from more than one party," he said. "It's already a hassle to get one parent, and to get info from both parties is just a hassle."

Although family circumstance factors heavily into financial aid determination, its role in admissions is minimal, according to interim Dean of Admissions Eric Kaplan.

"We do not have a formal mechanism for factoring in alternative family structures into admissions decisions," he said.

Though the "run of the mill" divorce does not usually have an effect on admissions decisions, Kaplan said that family background can play a role "in very unusual circumstances."

For example, if an applicant came from a single-parent household and was unable to participate in extracurricular activities because he or she had to take care of younger siblings, the Admissions office would not count their lack of activities against them.

Schilling said that other complicated situations, aside from divorced parents, have recently arisen.

"In terms of determining students' financial needs ,we encounter some very complex financial situations and tax returns," Schilling said.

As Occidental College financial aid director Maureen McRae Levy told The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The days when the typical situation was the mom, dad, kids, station wagon and dog are long gone."

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