Financial Aid and the Divorced Parent

My daughter is a senior in high school this year and has narrowed her college search down to 6 or 7 schools. I'm starting to get a little concerned after looking over the applications for financial aid -- income information is requested on both parents. I think her father will be forthcoming with his info, but I'm trying to figure out what to do if the aid or award or total package or whatever is based on his income (high) or a combination of mine (SSDI) and his. I will be the only one footing the bill for her schooling. Will you please help me understand how this works? Thanks!

--Carol 9736

Bruce Hammond

Bruce Hammond is an expert on college prep, applications and cost, and author of Discounts and Deals at the Nation's 360 Best Colleges and... Read more

Divorce is one of the thorniest issues in financial aid. The system works differently depending on where your child is looking to go for college. First, you need to understand that financial aid distributed by the colleges comes from two different sources: (1) Uncle Sam (2) the college's own resources. Federal money (e.g. Pell Grants, Stafford loans) accounts for the lion's share, but some colleges, mainly expensive, private ones, give away large quantities of their own money that is "packaged" with federal aid.

By law, colleges MUST distribute federal need-based aid without regard to the finances of non-custodial parents. The formula on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) deals exclusively with the child's current "household." If your ex-husband doesn't live with you and your daughter, he doesn't exist for the purposes of federal financial aid. If, however, you have re-married, your new spouse's income DOES count because his finances are part of the current child's household.

That's the end of the story at most public universities and some private ones. But expensive private colleges, which fork over thousands of their own money in addition to federal aid, are not satisfied to let your daughter's father off the hook. They often provide a financial aid form of their own to supplement the federal one, or use the College Board's Financial Aid Profile. The purpose: to introduce consideration of additional variables in your need analysis, including her father's financial resources. Some schools (Dartmouth comes to mind) insist that non-custodial parents pay their share without regard to divorce settlements that may assign responsibility to one parent. Not all expensive colleges are as strident as Dartmouth, but most will require the information.

If your daughter's father refuses to pay and the college says that he should, you'll need to throw yourself at the mercy of the aid office and see what happens. Write a letter giving your side of the situation, including background on the circumstances surrounding the divorce and why your ex refuses to pay. An important issue will be the date of the divorce -- the longer ago, the better. Some colleges will bend; others won't.

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