Roughly half of marriages end in divorce. And many teens have parents who never married. Many others are disconnected from their biological parents altogether. Heading to college and figuring out financial responsibilities for paying for college in a non-nuclear family is a well-worn path. But that path’s guideposts can be hard to find and read.
Often, the most controversial part of navigating the college process for non-nuclear families is MONEY. Here is some of our expert advice, based on years of experience working with families from a variety of situations, to help you lay a strong foundation for your child’s path through the college financial journey ahead.
1. Family members must educate themselves on the basics of college financing. Even in the simplest of circumstances, understanding college financial aid presents challenges, so the ideal first step can be to make sure all parties understand the basics of financial aid. To build on these basics, use the government’s site for Federal Student Aid to learn their key vocabulary, timelines, and opportunities.
2. Family members must commit to communicating with each other well. If communication has been contentious or absent up to now, create a communication channel that works, even if it means involving a third party. Clear communication eases the burden on a student and saves everyone time, money, and headaches.
Have a clear conversation with one another and with the student regarding ability to pay. Now, clarity may not be tightly defined in some cases. For example, saying “please apply to your top schools with a couple of schools in state, and we can evaluate the financial aid and scholarship offers when they come in” could work for some families.
However, if a family/guardian/supporter knows that they cannot afford a certain tuition level, the student needs to know this in order to construct the best possible college list for obtaining affordable options.
3. Family members must understand how the need-based financial aid process works in divorced or other non-nuclear families. Here is a breakdown:
- FAFSA Submission: This primary federal document determines a student’s Estimated Family Contribution. This document takes federal tax return information from the calendar year that began in a student’s 11th grade year, from the parent/household with whom the student lives the most. Note, this has nothing to do with legal custody agreements, but simply to do with which parent the student resides with most of the time. For many colleges, this document will be the only one evaluated in financial aid packages. Note that for students who are emancipated or independent (understand more about this here), the FAFSA process will rely on the student’s income only. Also, note there are benefits to submitting this form early in the senior year.
- CSS PROFILE: This additional form could be required by some schools. In many cases, when the CSS PROFILE is required, the school also asks for a noncustodial parent form. The College Board publishes a list of which schools require noncustodial parent information and which do not (https://profile.collegeboard.org/profile/ppi/participatingInstitutions.aspx). When non-custodial parent information is required, that means that the biological parent a student does not live with most of the time also needs to submit financial information for a financial aid package to be awarded. This can result in very different assessments of financial needs. Finally, if a noncustodial parent has been absent from a student’s life, the student may submit a waiver to request that parent not be included.
- Outside funding: Note that monies coming from other family members (grandparents, step-parents not listed not filing jointly, etc.) would not be evaluated in a need-based financial aid package. Any family members anticipating helping students to pay for college should not give money to the parents or put it in the student’s name; instead, they should simply hang on to it until tuition payments come due.
Navigating the finances of college can feel overwhelming, and family factors can create further complexity. Strive to keep lines of communication civil and open, use third parties such as school counselors or friends to help ward off combative encounters, present clear and agreed-upon information to students, and keep all parties in the loop to avoid miscommunications or bad feelings. Starting your college search earlier tends to increase the likelihood of open and civil communications. The process of applying to and arriving at the right college can only be smooth if you work together to meet deadlines, submit all documents, and do everything to gain your student the most scholarship and need-based financial aid possible.
Nicole has dedicated the entirety of her 20 year career to encouraging higher education opportunities. After graduating from Vanderbilt, she worked in her alma mater’s admissions office. The, she completed her PhD in Counseling so she could bring that expertise into college counseling. Nicole partnered with her former Vanderbilt colleague, Fitz Totten, to form Find The Right College and support their mission to make trustworthy advising more accessible.