One of the greatest financial expenses parents may face is the payment of their child’s college education. The national average cost for an in-state 4-year institution for the 2014-2015 school year was $9,139.00. For a 4-year private institution, the average costs were $31,231.00. It is no longer surprising to hear of parents spending upward of $50,000.00 per year for room, board, and tuition. The determination of how to fund college is difficult for intact families. This issue often becomes even more complicated when divorced or separated parents have to address how their child’s college education will be paid.
When divorced or separated couples cannot agree, the court is often called upon to determine the obligation of one or both parents to contribute to the costs of a child’s college education. In deciding the issue, the court will consider a number of factors, including, but not limited to: the costs of tuition, room, board, fees and other related college costs; each party’s ability to pay these college costs; the child’s relationship to the parent from whom a contribution is sought; the availability of financial aid; and the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education. Notwithstanding that the “child” is over 18 years of age, the court retains the power to compel parents to pay for the college education expenses of a child who pursues a bona fide full-time college education upon graduating from high school.
Divorced and separated parents should ensure that they become engaged in the college selection process with their child from the beginning. Even if a child lives primarily with the other parent, parents should make it a priority to understand your child’s educational goals and the types of colleges that will assist in reaching those goals. Parents should be involved in the application process and have a firm understanding of the costs involved and the types of financial aid available for the schools to which the child is applying. The cost of college today is simply too great for parents not to have a full understanding of what is in the best interest of their child and the financial consequences involved.
Recently, there have been calls for legislative action to completely change how the issue of paying for a child’s college education is addressed. Some of these proposals would eliminate the power of courts to compel parents to pay for the cost of college for a child 18 years of age or older. Others would cap the financial obligation of parents to the cost of an in-state college (such as Rutgers). One bill currently before the Legislature would provide that when parents agree, the court could not disturb that decision even if the parents elected not to contribute to the college education costs of their child. While it is too early to tell where these initiatives will go, parents going through a divorce or separation should be aware of how these potential changes in the law may impact their rights and obligations.
Given the substantial expense involved in connection with a child’s college education, and being aware that there may be potential changes in the law regarding funding for college, divorced or separated parents should consult with legal counsel before entering into any final settlement regarding the payment of college education expenses for a child.