If you are a divorcing or divorced parent of teenage children, you have probably given some thought to how to manage the cost of a college education or a vocational program for your children. This topic can often be a major point of contention which requires a difficult discussion and significant cooperation to create a successful outcome.
I suggest formal mediation as a process to resolve this issue. If you are going through a divorce now, keep in mind you can spend as much in attorney fees sorting it out as it would cost you to help your kids through a year of college. (This is not an exaggeration).
If you are already divorced, then it’s unlikely you can use the Court to legally coerce your ex-spouse into paying for any share of your children’s education. Hence you need a way to earn the cooperation of someone with whom you have irreconcilable differences. Raising this topic without professional help can result in a total disaster whereas a skilled mediator can assist you in reaching a productive outcome without excessive rancor.
Given the amount of money involved in sending children to college or vocational school, and the strong feelings many parents have about helping to provide for their children’s future, mediation offers a constructive framework within which to have this discussion. A professional family law mediator can help keep the conversation on track and moderate the dynamics if the dialog begins to get intense. Seeking professional help at the outset is a wise first step in what can be a difficult process with significant and far-reaching impact on your children’s trajectory in life.
As you prepare for this important discussion, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Keep an open mind and do your homework. There are many common concerns which will probably come up in the conversation with your ex-spouse. Here is a general primer to help organize your thinking and prepare for the mediation session.
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Student Loans and Scholarships
Student loans and scholarships often play a large part in how families approach helping their children through college/vocational programs. If a child is likely to be granted scholarships or other student aid (work study) then this may impact the choice of school. The parents need to guide their child appropriately and that typically works best with a united front. In fact, the whole approach to funding their child’s post-high school education is best planned and organized well before high school graduation. The student’s school counselor should have information on eligibility requirements and that guidance needs to be taken into account. There are just a couple of suggestions that I would offer at this point.
a) Make sure that you and your ex-spouse agree that all related scholarships should be pursued at the earliest possible juncture. This is an area where both parents can work together because their interests overlap. There are complicated eligibility questions which can arise if the parents’ incomes are unequal and a certain amount of finesse may be required that can only occur with cooperation.
b) It is far better to deal with the question of support for children going to college/trade school at the time of divorce rather than at the time when your child is ready to apply to colleges or vocational programs. If there is going to be a need for a “college fund” then it will be best to set money aside sooner rather than later.
Contribution of Child
The idea of a child working their way through college, or working summers to help pay for college may not be appealing in every family situation. Nonetheless, for other couples some form of work study is either financially imperative or at least a goal worthy of discussion. There is a wide range of thoughts and values at play and so compromise is often achievable. If you and your ex can resolve this topic, then expectations for your child can be set in a productive fashion. If you present a consistent message as you address how your child is going to contribute to their own future, then the process will run more smoothly.
Contribution from the Parents
There are many ways this topic can be successfully approached. Some couples with a low degree of trust in each other to perform will ask for a specific annual contribution from each parent into a college fund (such as a 529 fund) to build up reserves for future college expenses. If they have a high degree of trust in one another, they may agree that each parent will decide their own contribution without oversight or verification. Some couples simply set an annual contribution maximum for each parent to cover the cost of tuition and room and board. Others enter into an accord setting a lifetime maximum for each child expected from each parent and let the child determine how to apply it.
The specifics of all these agreements are unique to the couple and their values. Sometimes the parents match one another’s contributions while other couples agree on proportional contributions tied to their respective incomes. Others approach it by asking the child and each parent to contribute equally to the costs of college (1/3 from each).
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Many parents are willing to make a financial commitment to their child’s post-high school education only if certain conditions are met. While there are some parents whose support is virtually unrestricted, this is not the norm. There are usually “strings attached”.
Some parents are willing to contribute to certain degree programs and not others. I once mediated with a couple where the mother wanted to support their child’s acting and performance arts career while the father was adamant that he would only support what he considered to be a “legitimate” degree program. Even with their abiding love for their child, the disparity in their initial positions makes it doubtful they could have reached agreement without the assistance of professional mediation.
Some parents establish their level of support at the level of tuition expected in their State College program. Others insist their child live at home and attend a local community college for two years before transferring to a four-year program. The details can sometimes be worked out when the child is ready to attend college but if there are fundamental differences of opinion, the optimum approach is to mediate the conditions during the divorce rather than avoid them until the child’s senior year.
Length of Commitment
Almost every parent has heard from friends about children who become perpetual students and never graduate. I know of one case where the father agreed to support his child through college expecting four or maybe five years of expense. As it turned out, the child took almost ten years to graduate.
In most divorce mediations I have seen, couples will set up a plan centered on supporting their children only while they are full-time students for a limited number of years (normally up to five years). If their plan is for their children to be paying some of their own way through college (i.e. working full-time and taking classes part-time) then the expectations may be more flexible in terms of class load and time to graduate.
Expectations (Budgets and Allowances)
Given how the cost of college has skyrocketed, parents going through a divorce often work out a framework for setting expectations. Sometimes a high-level budgeting program that addresses expenses in a general way will be adequate. In other instances it is crucial to be very specific. Specificity becomes especially important if there are limited funds available or multiple children to support.
There are two threshold questions. One is to determine whether both parents agree on a plan to see their children through undergraduate school/targeted vocational training or, instead are willing to provide a college education that may include advanced degrees. The other is to determine if the parents are committed to paying their child’s way through college or if their goal is to help their child financially while they are in college.
No matter how those questions are answered, there are several categories of expenses to address. This level of detail can become complex. For the purpose of this article I’ll stick to a brief overview. Here, in a general way, is how I usually help couples organize typical education expenses when I am retained as a mediator.
There are some expenses for which the dollar amount is unknown at the time of the agreement but the commitment to support is unequivocal. These are “firm commitment” expenses such as tuition, books, lab fees and so forth. Cell phone and internet fees often now fall into this category.
The next level of expense consists of the routine costs of going to college but where there is some level of cost control available. Room and board is the main item in this category. The “room” cost may be a variable in which the parents have input. If the child is living in the dorm, then room and board is fixed by the college. However, if the child is living off campus then the cost will vary depending on whether the student lives in a shared apartment, a room-to-share situation, lives alone, and so forth. The “board” cost is likewise to some extent variable. Some parents may expressly limit the day-to-day living expenses they’re willing to cover to groceries or campus food plans. Others include line items such as gas, haircuts and other personal care items, entertainment and so on. If the child is responsible parents may put money on a debit card each month and allow the child to choose how the money is spent.
Another category of expenses are what I refer to as “indirect expenses”. These are costs which the child incurs whether they are in school full-time, part- time or not at all. Most parents will include these only if the child is a full-time student getting good grades. Car registration, car insurance, routine car maintenance are the major items but this category can also include many of the non-essentials from the other routine expenses.
There are some out-of-the-ordinary costs which might arise while in school. Examples are the cost of overseas studies, special trips, and financial support during low/unpaid internship. I refer to these as “discretionary costs”. Typically these discretionary costs would be subject to both parents agreeing at the time the opportunities arise. There are also often unexpected costs which might not arise but are often part of an overall agreement to support their child while in school. These are items such as major car repairs and uninsured medical expenses or legal expenses. Some couples agree up front to pay them as part of their educational support program and others exclude them with a proviso that they may pay them at the time depending on circumstances.
Catchall Saving Clauses
There are two catchall clauses which are often helpful. The first address the situation where concerted action is expected but not provided. This means that a reluctant parent cannot inhibit a determined parent
from taking unilateral action if they choose to. An example might be that a student wants to take a semester abroad, but it will cost more than the joint funds allocated by the parents. The saving grace is that the one parent who does not want to contribute above and beyond the agreement cannot prevent the other parent from contributing more if that parent believes it is in their child’s best interest.
The second saving clause is that anytime the payment of educational expenses for their child would create a bona fide hardship for either parent, then the parent’s performance is excused. This clause allows for situations where there have been unanticipated medical setbacks or financial reversals.
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This article only touches the surface of how to address the cost of college education for children in a divorce. As I noted earlier, every family situation is different. Each child has different competencies and interests which need to be taken into account. Sometimes there is money available from grandparents, or other family members to be considered. If one or both parents have remarried and there are blended families, then that can create a very complex matrix of problems to sort out as well.
However, if you are a parent with aspirations of helping to send your children to college, the best course of action is to try to come to an agreement with your ex as early as possible. This helps you by setting expectations with your children. It allows your family to adopt a reasonable plan that your children can count on as they search for the right college program. Formal mediation can create an environment where you and your ex can have a constructive conversation and come up with a workable agreement to resolve this important topic
I practice mediation in all 50 states and have not only handled thousands of mediation cases over the past 20 years but have taught seminars and appeared on numerous panels sharing my expertise.
Feel free to call me or use my contact form to request a free consultation to find out if your situation can be positively affected through mediation.