For most parents, the unknowns of college applications, choosing a school and financial aid are stressful. But college, financial aid and divorced parents make things even more complicated.
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 the 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 in student loans 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. Since we still have significant law school loans, we can’t afford to take on $200,000 in debt.
I learned another very important fact as well; schools that say they will “meet 100% of financial need” seem to not 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 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 less than my ex-husband’s, 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 request details about the custodial parent and current spouse (if any), but does not require information from the non-custodial parent. (The custodial parent is the one who has the kids more than 50% of the time.) If the time is split exactly 50-50, my understanding is that you can designate a custodial parent. The CSS form, however, requires information from both sets of parents (custodial and non-custodial).
There are other differences between the two forms. The CSS form asks over twice as many questions as the FAFSA, and takes into account a wider-variety of economic factors, such as regional differences in cost of living. It also allows for inclusion of a free-form section about special circumstances that may affect a family’s ability to pay for college.
While the FAFSA form has a specific deadline every year (June 30), the CSS form is due before the earliest college/scholarship application date you need to meet. Because the deadline can vary from applicant to applicant, it can be very confusing to understand when exactly the application is due.
Most private colleges require financial information from the non-custodial parent, either through requirement of the CSS profile or the school’s own form. 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.
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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Erin Gallivan is a partner with Meub, Gallivan & Larson. Gallivan was admitted to the Vermont bar in 1999. She graduated from Lehigh University and Northeastern School of Law, and was a clerk with the federal court in Vermont. Much of Erin’s practice has been dedicated to helping people in workers’ compensation cases, but she also advises condominium associations and schools, and handles real estate transactions and estate planning. Learn more at Meub, Gallivan & Larson.