Paying For College: What’s a Divorced Parent to Do?

PARENT STORY

Comparing financial aid offersI’m a single parent. My ex-husband had no legal requirement to pay for college and did not contribute, outside of the joint savings we had in a Section 529 plan that existed before we separated. 

My son probably has about $45,000 in debt after college; he did work-study and had summer jobs most summers, although one summer instead of working he took an Intensive Hindi program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He attended Vassar College, which is a need-based school, so his aid was based on my income and it was substantial. Still, I had to chip in a good amount and part of the debt is a $20,000 private student loan which I am also obligated to pay if he can’t. 

I  hired a friend who has a business helping parents with financial aid to fill out the forms for me (the College Board Profile is a nightmare to fill out) and he gave me an opinion on my son’s financial aid packages. (He helped from the beginning, in terms of helping me fill out the FAFSA and College Board Profile and evaluating financial aid offers.) That was helpful and not that expensive. I think help like that, if you can afford it, is useful in a situation like evaluating financial aid offers.

The financial aid package was completely need-based, so it depended on my income from year to year (I’m self-employed). If my income was higher, he would get less financial aid. We had some idea of how much debt he would have to take on, but had hoped it would be confined to federal loans. The private loan total balance is a bit lower now from monthly payments. There is no other debt besides various Federal Loans (Stafford and Perkins).

I honestly don’t know what I could have done differently so that my son wouldn’t have so much college debt. 

I would have liked to have helped him more financially, but I probably helped him more than I should have given the state of my financial resources and other obligations. 

Amy, PA 

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EXPERT ADVICE

DIY College Rankings ExpertMichelle Kretzschmar created the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet , which contains information on over 1,500 colleges that families can use to identify  the best schools for them. She has also created a 50-50 list of colleges that accept at least 50% of their applicants and have at least a 50% graduation rate. 

 

 

Michelle Kretzschmar responds:

There’s a major difference between what the mother could have done when her son was applying to school and what parents can do now, and that’s to use the school’s Net Price Calculator (NPC). Colleges have only been required to have them since 2011 so it wasn’t an available option when her son applied. In most cases, these can provide a reasonable estimate of the expected financial aid. 

What hasn’t changed is a family’s ability to apply to affordable schools. While Vassar is known for meeting 100% of financial need, it is up to Vassar to define the need. Vassar is one of the PROFILE schools that require the non-custodial parent to submit a financial aid form. Divorced parents should take this into consideration if they can’t rely on help from the non-custodial parent. You can see which schools require the Noncustodial PROFILE on the College Board Website. While the state can’t require a parent to pay for college, it is the college’s money and therefore gets to define financial need. 

I think the mother did a smart thing by hiring someone to help with the FAFSA and PROFILE. People get help with their taxes all of the time, financial aid forms are no different. I do wonder about the $20,000 in private debt. I don’t recommend anyone taking out more than what they can borrow through federal loans. Students can take out $27,000 is Direct (Stafford) loans without including the Perkins. Since the mother’s income varies, perhaps the financial aid package was better one year so the student didn’t have to take out any loans. 

The short answer to this question is that the student shouldn’t have gone to Vassar. However, that would have required the student applying to more affordable schools. Families need to take seriously the need for financial safety schools that the student would want to attend. Using Net Price Calculators and other available information, families can make sure students apply to schools that meet both academic and financial needs.

 

Felicia GoPaul

 

Felicia Gopaul, Certified Financial Planning and College Funding Specialist and founder of College Funding Resource

Felicia Gopaul responds:

This parent did many things right.  First, she tried to keep her/and her son’s student loan balances low,  He was willing to work while in school which kept the balances from being larger.  

No state can mandate that a parent is required to pay for college. In a divorce, it can be negotiated into a settlement agreement, but it’s not mandatory. In fact, a previous guest on my College Expert Talk podcast says that if an attorney includes it, he should be sued for malpractice.  

While it’s not a option for everyone, getting paid help completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile makes sense.  While both forms are easier today than in year’s past, both can be confusing. Also since there is no standardization with financial aid award letter. getting help comparing financial aid awards can be especially helpful to parents.  A colleague thought it was funny that colleges call work-study financial aid because it just means his daughter was working while in school!

 The one thing I would suggest is being careful helping your kid’s go to college. Especially if it leaves you in a perilous situation.  I do realize this is easier said than done. My role as a Certified Financial Planner professional has just seen the results when parents don’t hold to this rule.

Finally, my continuing mantra is start earlier to look for information on the college financing piece. Many parents wait until their child’s junior or senior in college to find out about the financial part of the college application process. Starting your planning in the 8th grade gives you more options.

Ultimately, I would say well done to this parent. A degree from Vassar will open many doors. She got her son through college with a degree. And It bucks the trend of too many students of lots of debt and no degree.  

 

  1. I find it sad that instead of asking institutions (and our government) to offer more aid, the common wisdom is that “this student shouldn’t go to this school.” Socioeconomic diversity is the ideal for schools that embrace need blind admissions, and yet there’s a huge gap between what many (well funded) schools offer and what many families can afford to pay. Divorced or not, this is a huge burden on many families and students– including middle class families. Are schools really justified charging so much?

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