College Financial Aid Issues When You Are Divorced
This article is a guest post from Vermont-based attorney, Erin Gallivan. Erin is a partner at Meub, Gallivan, and Larson
When my son was in his junior year of high school, we started putting together a list of colleges he might be interested in. In the spring of junior year, we visited Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby. Then over summer we visited Tufts, Dartmouth, Brown, Colgate, Cornell, and Hamilton. We knew that each of the schools we visited cost over $75,000 per year(!), but each school emphasized that they would meet the student’s “full demonstrated financial need” and that their students often graduate with no or little debt.
I started wondering what does “demonstrated need” mean exactly? I am divorced and remarried, and my ex-husband is also remarried. My ex-husband and I are both lawyers in Vermont with good incomes, but we still both have law school debt. I had gone to the “FAFSA4caster” to figure out what my expected family contribution would be, but that only considered income from me and my current husband. It didn’t ask about my ex-husband’s income.
What I learned is that with a combined income of our two families (myself and my husband, and my ex-husband and his wife) of around $300,000, our “demonstrated need” was around $25,000. Meaning we would get aid of $25,000 (including $2,500 student loan and $2,500 in work study), which was great, but we would have to contribute the rest. For the schools we were looking at, that meant $50,000 a year for four years, which we would either have to pay in cash, or take out loans – where the initial rate is around 7.1%. Our families make a healthy income, but we don’t have that kind of money saved, and we still have significant law school loans so we can’t afford to take on $200,000 in debt.
The other very important fact I learned is that schools that say they will “meet 100% of financial need” seem not to give any merit/academic scholarships. This was true for every school we visited, and includes all Ivy League and NESCAC schools. So, we could not count on any of these schools offering any additional merit aid, even though my son was a good enough student to possibly be considered for academic scholarships.
Most private colleges, but not all, require financial information from both the custodial and non-custodial parent. Since my income is a lot less than my ex-husbands, I began to search for schools that don’t require non-custodial parent financial information. There are generally two forms that colleges require you to complete for financial aid: the FAFSA, and the CSS. The FAFSA is the federal financial aid form, and the CSS is the College Board form. Both are completed online. FAFSA only requires information from custodial parent and current spouse (if any). It does not require information from the non-custodial parent. The custodial parent is the one who has the kids more than 50% of time. If the time is exactly 50-50, my understanding is that you can designate the custodial parent.
Most private colleges require financial information from non-custodial parent, either through requirement of the CSS profile or the school’s own form. (Although some schools use the CSS profile but don’t require non-custodial parent information) The College Board website has a list of schools that use the CSS profile, and the list also indicates whether the school requires non-custodial parent info. (https://profile.collegeboard.org/profile/ppi/participatingInstitutions.aspx) If the non-custodial parent makes a lot more than the custodial parent, it could be a significant advantage to find a school that does not require non-custodial parent financial information. If you’re wondering about a specific school, you can search that school’s financial aid website for “non-custodial parent”.
So if you’re divorced and are concerned about college costs, look for schools that do not require NCP financial information. You should also look for schools that offer merit aid. Talk to your high school’s college counselor about where your child might qualify for scholarships.
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