When the college-age children of divorced families begin their journey out of the nest and onto the quad, the best gift to give them is the peace of mind that comes in knowing their foundation is still there. The last thing they want—as they’re preparing for their SATs, ACTs and writing their essays—is to worry about the conflict between mom and dad regarding which colleges they can think about, because mom and dad have not come to an agreement in advance.
In this post, I will examine four of the most important issues to take into account for divorced (or soon-to-be divorced) families sending a child off to school:
Many divorce agreements do not include details about higher education, because the children were very young when the agreement was written. As a rule of thumb, and from insights I have gleaned over the course of my career, I would say that parents should begin thinking about college when the child enters high school. By the time the child is a junior and is visiting schools and taking the SAT, the underlying decisions about what your family can and can’t do should already be clarified.
That’s easier said than done, especially for families who have been divorced for several years and whose agreements did not take higher education into account. Families who are beginning the divorce process should pay special attention to include a clause about higher education. If you’re not ready to decide on the specifics of the financials, because it is so far in the future and there are too many unknowns, be specific about the timing and the process you will follow if you can’t reach an agreement.
- Choice of School
Parents might have very different ideas about what would be the right college for their child. For some, economics will play the greatest role and lead them to advocate for a state school. Other couples may conflict over deciding how near or far their child should live from home, i.e., SUNY Binghamton v. UCLA. Somehow the parents must find a way to navigate these issues before the child gets into this process and not have it color the experience for the child.
- Visiting Schools
Every college is not right for every child, and that is why it is so important to find a school that fits with your child’s personality. In order to truly get a sense of the local zeitgeist of the various colleges, couples will need to bring their child to the schools via planes, trains, and automobiles.
This can all be difficult for the child if his or her parents cannot find a way to work together. The best course of action is for parents to decide beforehand if they are going to share the trips or split them up between them. For the child, it is best for that to be a very smooth and integrated experience.
Higher education can come with quite a price tag, so it’s not surprising that many families go through the financial aid process in addition to the admissions process. The “holy grail” of financial aid is a form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. How you fill out the FAFSA has important implications for the amount of aid your child will receive.
FAFSA numbers depend on the residential parent’s income. In other words, if the child is living with the parent who earns less, the financial aid package may be more. There are also many different things you need to know about having money in the child’s name, or not in the child’s name, that can impact their financial aid award or scholarships. Luckily, there are college financial specialists who can discuss this and the myriad other factors that come into play while attempting to maximize your child’s financial aid award. If you are in dispute about college finances, it can help to consult a neutral college financial specialist who can go over your numbers, estimate the aid you might receive and advise you on best strategies to maximize financial aid and merit awards.
As anxiety-provoking as it is for you to approach the college process, remember that you are getting off easy. Your child is the one who will be learning tough lessons about life—albeit in a setting of freedom never experienced before. Preventing the differences between you and your co-parent from spilling out on college planning, school tours, or discussion about finances will help ensure that your child’s college process, and anticipating this transition, will be smooth and unburdened by parental conflict. In the end, this will empower your child to enjoy that new freedom, explore exciting new academic challenges, meet amazing people, and make you proud.
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My Divorce Recovery
Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP
Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.