College has always been expensive in the United States, but the cost of high education has skyrocketed in recent years. According to US News and World Report, the average annual tuition (plus fees) at a private nonprofit university is now upwards of $35,000. Those planning to attend a public four-year college or university should expect costs of almost $20,000 a year for tuition alone.
A college education has become so costly; a large percentage of U.S. parents simply can't afford to pay for tuition. Children of divorced parents can end up in an even more difficult situation.
One such case made national news in Connecticut, where a college student actually sued her father for failure to pay her tuition. Dana Soderberg's parents divorced in 2004, when she was an art major attending Southern Connecticut State University. Believing there was a chance her father would fail to pay her tuition at some point, Soderberg made him sign a contract that stated he would finance her education until she was 25 as long as she agreed to diligently apply for scholarships and other financial aid. During Soderberg's senior year, her father stopped paying tuition and she sued him. Her father counter-sued, claiming Soderberg did not apply for any scholarships or financial aid. The judge in the case sided with the daughter and recently awarded her $47,000 plus attorney costs.
"This is one of the stranger cases we've seen in a while," says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV. "When a divorced parent is failing to pay for a child's college costs, things typically get worked out long before a child sues a parent."
The peculiar – and probably unfortunate – dynamic in this particular father-daughter relationship aside, the Soderberg case set an interesting precedent for handling college costs in divorce cases. It also casts a light on one of the hidden costs for children of divorced parents. According to a recent study by professors at Rice University and the University of Wisconsin, children whose parents get divorced get less financial help with college, even if their parents remarry. The study shows parents who stay married cover an average of 77 percent of their child's tuition and contribute about eight percent of their incomes to tuition. However, divorced parents meet only an average of 42 percent of their child's tuition while contributing six percent of their incomes.
"When people talk about how divorce affects children, they usually are talking about young kids," explains Cincinnati, Ohio family lawyer Jerry Shade of Whitaker & Shade LLC. "However, this study shows older children can suffer financially from divorce even into young adulthood."
If you're a parent going through a divorce, you should address your child's future college costs with your family lawyer and agree on the terms with your spouse now rather than later when it could land you back in even more costly litigation.