Editor’s Note: The names of several students in this article have been changed to protect their identities. They requested to remain anonymous for fear of their financial security.
Y ou may have thought marriage had become obsolete among millennials, but Bohemianism has gotten expensive at UC Berkeley. In some cases, students have found that their marital status is a matter of tens of thousands of dollars.
Baela Tinsley, an out-of-state campus senior, first considered getting married because it would help him get in-state tuition. While he found that he was able to meet most of the conditions for California residency through relatively straightforward procedures (such as registering to vote in the state and getting a California driver’s license), his residency hinged on his financial status as a dependent. Undergraduates under the age of 24 can establish financial independence through various difficult and life-changing mechanisms, including joining the army, becoming emancipated from their parents, having a child and getting married.
“(Marriage is) like getting a green card for California tuition,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Emily.
But marrying for citizenship requires proving the marriage’s legitimacy through an exhaustive immigration process. By contrast, campus senior Alice, who also got married to receive in-state tuition, said she simply presented the residency office with the appropriate documentation, and her residency status was updated within a week.
“(Marriage is) like getting a green card for California tuition.”
“It all went much, much smoother than I ever could have expected of financial aid offices at UC Berkeley,” Tinsley said of his own experience.
The only unexpected outcome was overwhelmingly positive for Tinsley and Alice — they both found that the financial benefits of marriage extended far beyond the waiver of the annual $28,014 out-of-state fee. While they used to pay approximately $20,000 and $40,000 per year after financial aid, respectively, UC Berkeley now covers the full cost of their tuition, and they both receive money from the school for housing expenses.
Financial independence means the ability to pay for school is judged on a student’s personal income as opposed to that of his or her parents, meaning marriage has the potential to save money for almost any undergraduate, whether they be in-state students at public universities or enrolled at the most expensive private colleges. And while it is impossible to know whether Tinsley’s and Alice’s experiences are part of a larger trend, these marriages are not unique to UC Berkeley.
Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that she believes these marriages are “relatively rare.” She added that the registrar’s office has not noticed a significant uptick of cases in which marriage was a criteria used to gain California residency over the past five years.
Gilmore declined to discuss the school’s policy toward these marriages, and the consequences of being “found out” are unclear. She said the school has no way of determining if residency is the sole motive behind a marriage, and while one student claimed that punishments could range from a fine to prison, no one with whom I spoke had ever heard of such a case. UC Berkeley School of Law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig said in an email that to her knowledge, marrying for financial aid is not illegal and is “no different” from marrying for wealth.
“Marriage is always a legal and economic contract, whether people recognize it or not,” said Leti Volpp, another law professor at UC Berkeley, in an email.
However, these students emphasized the need to be discreet about their marriages because of potential repercussions from the school. Jade, a campus senior who is considering getting married, said a financial aid officer attempted to dissuade her potential bride. The rest of the students said they had expressly avoided the financial aid office throughout the process.
“Marriage is always a legal and economic contract, whether people recognize it or not.”
— Leti Volpp
Besides official discouragement, some faced skepticism from friends and family. All the students discussed initial resistance from their parents, and Tinsley said that after he posted a Facebook status about his marriage, he received a worried text from his grandmother.
“I explained the situation to her — that now I’m getting free tuition. She responded with ‘That’s no reason to get married,’ ” Tinsley said. “I don’t think she understood what this means for the rest of my life, so I ended up telling her I was just pulling her leg.”
And while unconventional, these marriages were not performed without caution. The students stressed the importance of finding the “right person” — someone they trusted enough to bind themselves to legally and financially. Although none of them are romantically involved with their spouses, they all married good friends, and they ironically discouraged marrying a romantic partner “for financial reasons,” as Jade said.
Besides perks such as reduced car insurance and occasional awkward explanations on first dates, Tinsley and Alice noted that their day-to-day lives had changed very little, excepting their financial situations.
Though some of the students felt they had pulled the process off with relative ease, they all emphasized that their marriages came out of financial necessity. Jade is on a full scholarship that may not cover her final semester; Emily is from a low-income family but lost her financial aid after she took a gap year; and Alice had planned on leaving school because of financial constraints and returning when she turned 24.
“I don’t think people really understand that me being able to go to school hangs on this,” Emily said. “This was not just a fun thing that I wanted to do.”
From some of the students’ perspectives, this phenomenon is a loophole in the “broken” higher education system. Alice said figuring out how to pay for college has become a perverse “game” for many students, and Emily said she wished there were more dialogue about why some feel they must get married in order to afford UC Berkeley.
And though the future of these marriages is hard to predict, the students suggested that they would only increase with tuition.
Contact Frances Fitzgerald at [email protected].