Planning to send your child to college is always a stressful time, especially when the price tag of college can be $80,000/year for a private college. Now, add to that the emotional and financial stress of a divorce, and it’s certainly not an easy time to navigate both of these major life changes. So, I reached out to college finance expert, Vicki Vollweiler, of College Financial Prep, to ask for her guidance on what parents can do to help minimize the cost of college while going through a divorce. Surprisingly, she advised me that sometimes divorcing spouses have more strategic opportunities than intact families when it comes to college financial aid. She offered her top five tips here.
- Communicate. When facing separation or divorce, include the topic of college as an item to be discussed with both your divorce attorney and your co-parent. As co-parents, it is important that you work together for the benefit of your child. College is both a highly charged emotional and financial topic, and one that can severely impact the child. Consider whether you want your child to go to a public or private university. There is no right answer, and sometimes it depends on your ability to finance the cost of the education. Consider consulting with a college finance advisor, who can help the co-parents strategize on what schools the child should apply to in order to get the best financial aid package.
- Plan to save for college. Do you already have a college savings plan in place? Is it fully funded? If not, discuss 529 plans or other investment vehicles. While there are opportunities to save money on the cost of college through both merit scholarships and need based aid, saving money for college expenses is still very important. In addition, discuss such plans with your divorce attorney, who will want to ensure in an agreement that the money you contribute into a 529 plan post-divorce will be counted towards your share of the child support college obligation. Regarding financial aid applications, it may matter whose name the 529 accounts is under.
- Discuss who the custodial parent should be, since it will likely impact financial aid. Depending on the colleges that your child applies to, you may be able to submit only the custodial parent’s financial information. So, it may be better to submit the lesser monied parent’s financials. Additionally, especially during the latter high school years, when college and financial aid applications are being submitted, it is ideal when both parents reside within the same school district. That way, it is easy for parents to agree on a switch as to who the custodial parent is if one parent has less income and assets than the other. The law is constantly changing surrounding college financial aid, so it is a good idea to consult with a college financial aid advisor.
- Second marriages may hurt opportunities for financial aid. Please think carefully about the possible impact of remarriage on financial aid. This is true even if the new step-parent will not provide any financial assistance for the child to attend college. Some colleges will require the information from both sets of parents. If both parents are remarried, this can include up to four people’s income and assets. When one parent chooses not to participate with providing their financial information to the colleges, then there is virtually no possibility for the child to receive any aid from the college because it is presumed that it is not needed.
- Always complete the financial aid application, even if you believe that your household or your former spouse’s household will not qualify. Some colleges are so expensive that many do offer aid, even when you don’t expect it. Other colleges will only provide merit scholarships to your child with the submission of financial aid forms. Also, if the student is going to take out any student loans, even if the parents earn millions of dollars per year, the financial aid forms need to be submitted. It’s important to note that if your child is already in college, the financial aid application is the first step in saving even more money on the cost of college for your child due to the change in your household finances.
Vicki Vollweiler, MBA, CDC is a divorced parent and the founder of College Financial Prep, a full-service college admissions, scholarship and funding firm. www.CollegeFinancialPrep.com. You can reach Vicki at Solutions@CollegeFinancialPrep.com or by calling 516-225-5224 to discuss your college finance options.