Millions of high school seniors await their acceptance letters to college right now; and millions more parents wonder how they will pay for their children’s dream schools. College expenses can be daunting for intact families, but for divorced parents it may threaten the ability of the child to attend college, or at least the college of choice.
In Missouri, parents must look to their divorce decree to determine what, if any, responsibility the court requires of them with regard to paying for college. It is best if parents can agree during the divorce whether and how to contribute to college. Some families have been taking advantage of various savings programs to pay for college; during divorce, the parties should put a priority on paying for college through these funds first. As to any remaining balance, the parties must decide how much they will contribute and how much the child will contribute. If parents believe they will not be able to afford more than X dollars for college, that expectation should be set clearly in the settlement agreement. If a child wants a more expensive college, the child will need to apply for grants or loans. Also, the parents must agree how much debt they will accept to finance for college, if any. And, if the parents have multiple children, they must decide how to apportion their available funds.
But what if parents do not agree on a sum at the time of divorce of simply forgot? A parent seeking assistance can return to court and move to modify the decree to account for college expenses. This can happen in two ways – either through an addition of extraordinary expenses to the Form 14 child support calculation, in which case the cost of college becomes allocated by each parent’s income share, or through a separate order on college education expenses. In general, Missouri courts will not order parents collectively to pay more than the in-state tuition to the University of Missouri. Also, the court cannot order more than a parent has the ability to pay. And a court cannot force parents to go into debt or take out loans to pay for college.
Ideally, parents should think about minimizing college costs by maximizing scholarships, grants and loans, as described in this article in U.S. News. If a senior attains a certain grade point average and an ACT score of 30 or above, most schools will award partial merit scholarships that reduce tuition – some quite significantly. Also, most colleges offer additional scholarships, some for full tuition, through specific competitive applications. Missouri also has two programs parents should consider – Bright Flight, which awards up to $12,000 over four years to pay the costs of room and board to students who score a 31 or higher on the ACT, and the A Plus program, which gives students free tuition to attend a community college.
It is best if parents can work together to coordinate the application process, particularly if they intend on applying for financial aid. But setting early expectations on finance ceilings and the need for children to excel at school help just as much in planning for secondary education.
If you have questions about divorce and paying for college, contact us – we can help.