By Rachel A. Morandi
The exorbitant costs of post-secondary education have long been at the forefront of the discussion between parents and their children as they embark on their college journey, particularly as those costs continue to rise at four-year institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2019), between 2006-07 and 2016-17, the cost of undergraduate tuition rose by a staggering 31% for public institutions and 24% for private institutions, after adjusting for inflation.
With student loan debt on the rise, parents are looking for ways to make college more palatable for their wallets and pocketbooks while also seeking to limit (if not eliminate altogether) the amount of debt their children takes on to fund their college education. A 2019 report by the Institute of College Access & Success ranked Massachusetts 12th on the list of graduates with the most student loan debt -- with the Massachusetts class of 2018 having average student loan debt totaling approximately $31,882 per student. It is no wonder that the allocation of college educational costs has increasingly become a hot-button issue for parents and children alike.
Parents everywhere face a host of questions regarding the post-secondary education of their children. Can I afford to contribute to college? Do I need to take out loans? Should our child take out loans? What school should our child attend? These are just a sampling of the important questions and decisions that parents must make. The issues are even more complicated when parents of a soon-to-be college-bound child are divorcing. Not surprisingly, the question we receive most frequently from divorcing clients concerns the allocation of college contributions – with many seeking to bundle in the allocation of costs as part of their divorce agreement (or future orders, as the case may be).
Whether or not you will be responsible for the college educational costs of your child or children largely depends on your financial circumstances and those of your spouse at the time of your divorce, although recent changes to the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines have helped to clarify this issue. Specifically, prior to 2017, two camps emerged with respect to the parental contribution of college expenses – namely the, “a third, a third, a third” rule of thumb, which provides that the costs of the child’s education will be split three ways between the parents and the child (with each being responsible for 1/3 of the cost); and the “UMass cap”, which provides that the combined contribution will not exceed the cost of tuition, room and board at UMass Amherst for that year – regardless as to whether the child elects to attend a private or public institution.
The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, as modified in 2017, provide some clarity on the issue of college expenses. Specifically, the Guidelines adopt a modified version of the so-called “UMass cap” providing that a parent’s contribution should not exceed fifty percent of the annual in-state cost of a child’s education at UMass Amherst. However, the Guidelines and the commentary make clear that the cap is not intended to limit the contributions of parents who are “financially able to pay [the] educational expenses” of their child from other assets or resources. Rather, they are intended to provide guidance in addressing some of the complexity surrounding college educational expenses. The Court may deviate from the so-called “UMass cap” so long as it enters written findings that a parent has the ability pay a higher amount.
Like most issues in the law, the cap provided for in the Guidelines cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Massachusetts case law provides additional factors to be considered in determining the appropriate allocation of college expenses among divorcing parents. In particular, the courts will consider the financial resources of both parents, the cost of the school, the child’s scholastic aptitude, and the benefits the child will receive from attending the school, among other factors. No one consideration is conclusive in determining the allocation of college costs.
While a review of the Child Support Guidelines and Massachusetts case law provides an excellent overview for determining the likelihood of your college contributions to your child’s education – there is no substitute for legal advice from an experienced family law practitioner. If you are a parent involved in a pending divorce with issues concerning college educational expenses, it is important that you speak with an attorney to ensure that you are not overburdening yourself financially and that you and your child are able to enjoy the college-years free from unnecessary financial stress.