States Split on Asking Divorced Parents to Pay for Children's Tuition
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 August 2002]
Mommy and Daddy share custody of their kids'. But their bills too?
By RICHARD MORGAN
BONUS: See the chart
Kelly E. and Meghan E. Evans, twin sisters in Hartford, Conn., will defy the odds by enrolling at nearby Trinity College this fall. Their disadvantage: Their parents divorced in 1996, and only one parent is writing tuition checks.
Their mother, Kathy H. Evans, an administrator at a nonprofit organization, has pieced together a patchwork of federal aid and private scholarships. And the sisters are eligible for a discount that Trinity, a private, four-year college, offers to graduates of Hartford-area high schools.
Ms. Evans says she has done everything she could to avoid the financial pitfalls encountered by many single and divorced parents trying to shoulder the entire load of a college education for their children. "I constantly learn of single parents in way over their heads in debt because their kids went to college," she says. "That would have been me. I would have been drowning in debt."
Beginning October 1, judges in Connecticut will be able to help students like the Evanses, under a new law that allows courts to include college expenses in setting child-support payments in divorce cases. It goes into effect too late to help the Evans sisters, although their mother testified in its support. But the state law, enacted this summer, is part of a growing national trend.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, judges in 23 other states can approve such a requirement -- a significant break from the past, when legal responsibility for child support traditionally ended at the age of 18. Lawmakers and courts are beginning to recognize, experts say, that a college education is as crucial a family expense as housing and medical care. In the past several years, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have given judges powers similar to those in the Connecticut law.
"College is now -- and has been -- not a luxury but a necessity to enter the work force," says John P. Vincent, a psychology professor at the University of Houston, who studies divorce. "These kinds of laws address that. They make good social-policy sense."
A Collective Decision
Not everyone agrees. Critics say such measures, which do not require married parents to pay for college, give an unfair advantage to children from divorced families. The critics also note that many divorce settlements are reached years before a child -- or parents -- even start thinking about college.
In Connecticut, State Rep. Art J. Feltman, a Democrat, who was one of the leading proponents of the bill, says judges already sort through a series of important decisions for couples going through a divorce, like "who spends vacations with who, who picks up the kids from where, who gets the Tupperware and the exercise bike." The new law, he says, "doesn't force divorced couples to support their kids' higher education. It forces them to make a collective decision. Either they're both in on it, or neither. But not just one. That's what married people do."
Mr. Feltman became interested in the issue in the spring of 2001, when he received a copy of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-Year Landmark Study, by Judith S. Wallerstein (Hyperion Press, 2000). It was, he says, "one of those few times that academia influenced state law."
Ms. Wallerstein, a senior lecturer emerita at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading researcher on children of divorce, found that while 80 percent of children in intact families get parental support for their college expenses, the proportion plummets to 29 percent for children of divorced families. And within those families, she noted, 44 percent of college students receive only erratic support.
Because the parent who gets custody of the children in a divorce is usually the mother, who must ask the father for more child-support money to pay for college, Mr. Feltman says he understands concerns about "saddling fathers with big payments." In response, two key restrictions were added to the Connecticut law.
One says the parent with custody must prove that the divorce is the only factor affecting her or his ability to pay for college expenses. The other is a cap on the amount of money that the parent without custody must pay. His or her share cannot exceed the total expenses for an in-state student at the University of Connecticut. (For 2002-3, UConn's in-state expenses total $13,363.)
Those restrictions disappointed lobbyists for the state's private institutions, which, on average, charge higher tuition rates than the state's flagship university does.
But the legislation "was a train that had left the station and was already hurtling away" by the time private-college leaders took notice, says Judith B. Greiman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, whose "dream deal would be to allow tuition and costs for whatever college the student wanted to go to."
State Rep. Christopher R. Stone, the Democrat who devised the cap restriction, says it "offers some predictability," even if much of the law's language is still vague. For example, it requires that a student stay in "good academic standing" but fails to provide any quantifiable guidelines for judges to set that bar.
The law also fails to specify how a court should determine that the divorce is the only factor affecting the custodial parent's ability to pay college expenses. The custodial parent somehow must prove that but for the divorce, the child would most likely go to college. The younger the children at the time of divorce, Mr. Stone acknowledges, the more difficult it is to prove that they would have gone to college.
State Rep. John Wayne Fox, a Democrat who was the most vocal critic of the law, says he, too, was worried about the vagueness of its language. In the end, however, he voted in favor of the legislation. "We have to walk before we run," he says.
At least the cap, he adds, helps to ensure that the custodial parent doesn't necessarily choose an expensive college while the other parent favors the cheapest option. "It's not one party saying little Johnny's going to Harvard rather than College X," he says. "There has to be an agreement."
Even though the new law will affect only those divorces that become final after October 1, Ms. Evans, whose daughters are attending Trinity this fall, testified in favor of the bill before lawmakers for the sake of custodial parents to come. In her divorce, she says, a savings account for the children's education was divided between her and her husband, and she used her share to create a 401(k) account for herself. (Her own pension plan was tied up in her ex-husband's company.) Her relationship with her ex-husband, who has remarried, is bitter.
"The noncustodial parent begins to really resent that [child-support] check, so they'll stop it as soon as they can," Ms. Evans says. "Even though you will think, 'Oh, it's for the kids,' that goes away, and it just ends up with, 'Why does she need all of this? Think about how I could be spending this.' The control factor is huge."
She supports the new law despite her suspicion that it will make divorce proceedings even more adversarial. And she is happy that Connecticut parents who divorce in the future won't have to give up alimony payments or property in order to provide for their children.
"Is it OK with us, as a country, to say, 'Well, these kids don't deserve to go to college because their parents don't stay together?'" she asks.
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