Advice for students with divorced parents?

I am a senior in high school trying to finalize my college list. Unfortunately, I ran into a financial issue that is preventing me from applying to many of my top choice schools. My mother has a very low income, which qualifies me for Questbridge, the Pell Grant, and Free and Reduced Lunch Program. My father, on the other hand, makes 250k+, an income that will definitely disqualify me for financial aid. The problem is my father is completely unwilling to help pay for college, and because many schools require his income, they are now out of reach. His involvement in my family is minimal; he only pays court-ordered child support. Has anyone experienced this issue? Is there any way around it? I am a relatively competitive student (1500 SAT, 3.99 UW GPA) and I’m feeling like all the colleges that I formerly thought I had a shot at are completely out of reach.


Ask your father to pay for an Ivy or other high ranking school?

There are a lot of very nice schools that only require the FAFSA to get aid, and many that have merit aid for your stats. Merit aid with the federal grants (Pell, SEOG, subsidized loans) may cover your needs.

Most highly selective private schools require both parents’ finances for financial aid. You can request a waiver of non-custodial parent finances, but colleges will not generally grant one if the non-custodial parent pays any child support or has any contact at all.

Most of the schools that require both parents’ finances for financial aid require the CSS Profile form in addition to FAFSA. shows you which schools require CSS Profile, and which of these require the non-custodial parent Profile. Note that a few schools like Princeton use their own supplemental forms instead of CSS Profile. Schools that use only FAFSA without CSS Profile or other supplemental forms use only your custodial parent finances.

The few highly selective colleges that may not require non-custodial parent finances are: Chicago, Vanderbilt (usually). Princeton requires non-custodial parent finances if your custodial parent is not (re)married. Check their financial aid web pages and net price calculators.

Since your other posts indicate that you live in New Jersey, it looks like Rutgers and other New Jersey public universities use only FAFSA; you may want to check their net price calculators to see if they are likely to offer sufficient financial aid. Check also for in-state merit scholarships at these schools.

You may also want to check merit scholarships. These lists may help, though you should verify on school web sites: (potential safeties) (potential reaches) (if National Merit)

My daughter faced the same issue. To make matters worse, her father insisted on her applying to Ivies and other top universities that I knew he would not pay for. She got into Cornell, her dream university, and of course he then refused to pay for it. Because we had anticipated he wouldn’t pay, she had also applied to several public universities ranked from around 30-100 where she was qualified for various merit scholarships (and also financial aid, since they only looked at my income and not both parents). She accepted a scholarship package that covers all tuition and most of room and board.

It’s ridiculous that the top (private) universities look at both parents’ income when the parents are divorced, knowing that there are a lot of exes out there who will absolutely not help cover the cost of university. It’s just a sad reality, but one you will have to deal with and plan around. Your only way to get around it is to simply leave those universities off your list, and set your sights on places where your father’s income will not be taken into account.

For financial safeties, my daughter included some universities on her list where she was guaranteed a scholarship for a certain GPA and/or SAT/ACT score. I suggest you look for all such guaranteed scholarships – some are for full tuition or even full ride. The most important thing is to choose universities that will be affordable.

It's ridiculous that the top (private) universities look at both parents' income when the parents are divorced, knowing that there are a lot of exes out there who will absolutely not help cover the cost of university<<<<<<<


 I doubt that the married people would concur. There are still 2 parents. It is ridiculous maybe to apply to unaffordable schools. Kids of old married folk have to stare this issue in the face too. Dad still might say no, but over the shared cheerios. It is one thing for a kid to be petulant, but the grown ups have to be pragmatic. 

I’ll respond too to the comment about divorced people better live within their limits like marrieds do: Clueless comment.

The amount of money I was forced to spend to respond to my ex’s abusive litigation exceeded what I would have spent on private colleges for the kids. But not to respond would have cost me custody: That’s how the lawyers get you.

Lawyers play rough in matrimonial court, loose with the facts, and ruinous with the billing. (Billing is really the whole point, under heaps of distracting, misleading hyperbole.)

Kids and I ended up without a place to live, though my ex could have funded the family home with marital assets 50x over. However ex must now pay tuition, as the judge ordered–which is by far less than my share of half or equitable distribution would have been. (Ex simply hid most of our stock portfolio from court, which you can do easily with tax-deferred assets.)

Formerly well-off kids were without a roof, hot water or heat. For a time, we were showering at the Y. (I remedied that, but not as well as the judge should have.)

Lawyers in matrimonial have few compunctions about bleeding a family dry. Divorce court judges can be arbitrary, and frequently ignore the mandate of “children’s best interests.” But they sure do get the lawyers’ bills paid, no matter how absurd the amount and basis.

In our idiotic and dangerous matrimonial legal system, my empathy is for all who suffer, especially the kids.

–In short, often the divorced family’s finances bear absolutely no resemblance to a married family’s finances.

And one divorcing parent is sometimes forced to choose among abuses, perhaps blindly.

My child’s merit scholarship benefits my ex, who doesn’t need the deduction–and is very unlikely to put the savings toward medical or grad school for the kid who earned it.

I am nonetheless grateful to the school, and so is my kid, that he was offered merit.

Good luck to everyone. May all our children fulfill their promise, in education and beyond!

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@lanam99 if your parents were divorced in NJ, I believe NJ law holds your father legally responsible for contributing towards your college education. Since your father makes so much money, I think there could be the possibility that he would have to pay the full cost of a private college, but you might have to prove why he should have to pay for that rather than Rutgers. (So if you get into Harvard, I’d think you’d win. But if you want to go to a private school ranked similar to Rutgers, you wouldn’t). The problem, as @IvyGrad09 points out is the cost of an attorney for you. You might want to call your local Legal Aid or your County Family Court to see if you can speak with an attorney who can help you. It might also be that your father would have to pay for your lawyer, so maybe a private attorney would be willing to take this on. As @IvyGrad09 points out, if you have younger siblings at home (younger than 13), you might not want to do this because your father could threaten your mom with taking away custody of your siblings from her. Given your dad’s lack of involvement, that’s highly unlikely but so terrifying for your mom that it’s not worth it.

If you go down this road, this will be time consuming and stressful for you, but depending on what your school options are, it might be worth it. My thought is that you apply for a number of FAFSA only schools where you will get full aid based on only your mom’s income, but then you go ahead and apply early action (not early decision) to those CSS schools you were interested in. If you get into those schools, you can go ahead and then sue your father and ask the court to fast track your case because you need this resolved before May 1. In the meantime I’d ask that school to give you full financial aid pending the outcome of your case. If you’ve gotten accepted early action, there should be enough time. I’m wondering if you apply regular decision, whether a school would be willing to work with you on this.

This is all probably too much work given that you have other options. And you’d have to confirm everything I just said with a NJ family law lawyer, but it might be worth your while to check it out.

When calculating need-based aid with divorced parents, it’s generally expected that each parent will contribute an amount that’s commensurate with their own financial situation. The custodial parent who is working two jobs at low wages while caring for her child (or children) is not expected to make the same contribution as the non-custodial parent who is earning $250k+. The expected contribution of the first parent may be $0, while for the latter it might be $60k.

Divorced parents’ finances are typically worse than when they were married:

a. They spend large amounts of money on divorce lawyers. Any college money for their kids is now college money for their lawyers’ kids.
b. After divorce, they spend more maintaining separate households than they spent in a shared household when married.

That is in addition to:

c. Divorced parents are commonly suspicious and uncooperative with each other, so their kids’ college money becomes just another part of their ongoing fights. Each is suspicious of the other not paying his/her “fair share”, and each may be unwilling to do financial aid forms that could leak their finances to the other.

From the colleges’ point of view, requiring both divorced parents’ finances screens out a large number of financially needy students like the OP, so that they can continue to claim to have good financial aid or meet need generally, but have a smaller percentage of students actually able to take them up on their claims, keeping their financial aid expense lower.

We’ve seen many parents (divorced, married, single) claim that the system is unfair because they have a lot of credit card debt or bills or live in a high cost of living area and the schools should consider that when awarding financial aid. The schools don’t get into why the family is in debt and debt is usually not considered when awarding FA.

I’ve seen people getting divorced go ten rounds over who gets the vacuum cleaner or the kids bikes - that are the size for a 6 year old but which the child will have outgrown by the time the argument over whose house those bikes will be parked at is over. I have an acquaintance who has been getting divorced and fighting over every single thing for 10 years. Now it is time for college and yes, they’ve spent all the money on attorneys. How is that the attorneys’ fault? Or the college’s responsibility to cover tuition because the parents spent all their money on the divorce? These people agree on nothing and the divorce ‘agreement’ says they will ‘revisit’ who pays for college when the time comes. Well, it’s here and there will be no revisiting without lawyers. More money spent. (And I know that at least the wife has changed attorneys several times because she didn’t pay her bill; Attorneys have kids who want to go to college too).

There is a solution to this. Go to a FAFSA only school.

My kids had no second parent paying their tuition (or child support). I couldn’t afford most colleges, so they applied to schools I could afford with merit aid, talent aid, my income. This crossed a lot of schools off their lists.

Seems like the only apparent consensus here is that whether and where you go to college depends at least as much on parental finances (and decisions that affect them, like marriage/divorce) as your own academic merit.

unless things have changed in the last 10 years, I was told that no parent can be required to pay for college in NJ. Whether parents are married or divorced, college is not a “necessity”. However, this directly impacts my situation so I hope things have changed.

Also, it’s not just divorced parents, I’ve seen many married parents also refuse to pay for college - whether they can afford it or not.

There have been a few cases out of NJ where the parents are required to pay for college tuition. However, it is not a blank check and the parents can impose some restrictions like living at home, tuition for a state school only.

This does not make for family harmony.

The other “unfair” scenario is I had to include my husband’s income and assets on my daughter’s FASFA and he isn’t paying a dime toward her college, nor should he. We have been married for 2 years but they still include his income as a means to pay for her college. Needless to say, we received $0 in financial aid and opted for the public university - where she is very happy.

Blue- colleges aren’t looking to your husband of two years to fund college- they are considering the fact that your “household” involves another adult whose income is available for rent, food, etc. which frees up some of YOUR income for college costs.

Is the system perfect? No. Are there kids whose modestly-earning mom’s have married men with million dollar homes and substantial assets-- and should those families be treated like the modestly-earning single parent who has to pay every single bill on her own with NO assist at all?

What do YOU think? The kid living in a dumpy apartment with a single parent gets treated the same as the kid living in waterfront property in La Jolla… just because both mom’s work as social workers or school librarians with the same gross income? Is THAT fair?

Responding to OP: choose fafsa only schools, or ones that offer good merit aid. You might be surprised that once you do this, and NCP sees the lower cost, he is willing to pony up half.

But he wont be willing to pay half of a large bill in which he has no decision power.

OP thank your mom. She’s helped make sure you see yourself as a contender for the best universities in the world and you’ve become a strong candidate for merit aid despite all the family challenges. Top students like you do well and have the same long term outcomes wherever they go.

You are moving into adulthood. You are learning there will be people you can count on, and others you can’t. As long as you can identify one from the other you’ll be able to plan accordingly.

Work on things you can control, like which schools to apply to, not trying to change the well established behaviors of people around you. It’s a tough heartbreaking lesson to realize what you thought would be isn’t actually possible, one I’m sure your mom can guide you through.

Take the time to cherish the ones you can count on (there will be very few of them) and thank them as much as possible for the things they do for you.

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The cases in NJ that I’ve seen try to put the child in a similar position that he/she would have been in if there were an intact family. If 1 parent is making 250 plus and is saying he isn’t going to contribute, I don’t think that’s going to fly with the NJ court system.

Blossom - I agree with you but I don’t think the scenario you proposed is the norm, and it certainly isn’t my situation. I have a modest income equal to my husband’s but combined it kept us from getting any aid aside from a $1500 non subsidized loan.

Look at Newburgh v Arrigo, which establishes the duty of parents to pay, and Finger v Zenn, which provides that the duty is NOT limited to paying for in-state. That doesn’t mean that a student has the right to impoverish his/her parents or that the student has a blank check. All it means is the court will look at all the facts and circumstances to determine what is reasonable for a parent to pay. So at 250 plus income per year, if OP got into Harvard, I think dad would have to pay. There is an issue that OP seems to have no relationship with his father, but it sounds like that was the father’s choice, not OPs, so I don’t think it would be held against him. FYI, there is a 2014 lower court case, Black v Black, that discussed a student wanting to transfer from Rutgers to U Miami, but in that case the mom made 20k and the dad made 60k, and the court found that the extra cost was not reasonable for these parents. Again, at 250 plus, I think this is a different situation, but I still think OP would have to show that the school he wants to go to is substantially better for him than Rutgers or the FAFSA schools he gets into.

And please, don’t underestimate the amount of stress and turmoil going through this process would create. I think that @BuckeyeMWDSG has it right, but I also think it’s good if OP knows his options. Honestly, it disturbs me that any parent who has the ability to contribute to his/her child’s education would refuse to do so. This is totally unacceptable and the SJW in me has a hard time with this.