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Divorced Parents Pay Less toward Their Kids’ College Educations

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Even though student loan debt is nearly unavoidable with the rising costs of tuition, room and board, many college-bound young people expect their parents to help foot the bill for their education. If their parents aren’t married, though, they might be taking out more loans than they care to think about.

New research published in the Journal of Family Issues suggests that divorced or separated parents contribute significantly less money toward their children’s college educations than married parents.

Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents

Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents is the title of the article written by Ruth N. Lopez Turley of Rice University and Matthew Desmond of the University of Wisconsin. The pair analyzed parent interview data from a subsample of 2,400 dependent undergraduate students from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of 1995-96 to compare the financial contributions of married, divorced and remarried parents toward their children’s college education.

To distinguish divorced, remarried and married families from one another, Turley and Desmond matched the survey responses of students who indicated that their parents were not married to each other with those whose parents said they were currently married.

Children of Divorced Parents Spend the Most on their own College Education

The researchers found that children whose parents were married to each other paid for about 23 percent of their own college expenses. Children whose parents divorced and did not remarry were left to come up with 58 percent of their own college costs, and children whose parents were remarried had to pay for 47 percent of college expenses themselves—despite having family incomes similar to students with married parents.

The pair also investigated the financial contributions of divorced and remarried parents living in the 19 states that have postmajority laws, which allow courts to extend child support past the age of 18 or order a divorced spouse to pay child support for college costs.

Turley and Desmond discovered that remarried parents in postmajority states paid slightly more than their peers in states without such laws, but divorced or separated parents in postmajority states paid a bit less than those in other states.

Students of Divorced Parents Going into Debt During College

“What my research does is help to explain one mechanism by which divorce can be detrimental to kids,” Turley said in a telephone interview with Inside Higher Ed. "A lot of these students are having to either get into a lot of debt or work more while they are in college, and both of those things are associated with a lower likelihood of completing college.”

She believes that her research shows how parents who are remarried differ from those who are not in terms of financially supporting their children’s education.

Five years ago, 75 colleges piloted a system that helped financial aid staff members collect information from both parents, including information from parents’ new spouses, while not expecting them to pay college costs.

Although “Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents” is based on data collected fifteen years ago, Haley Chitty, spokesman for National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says that the practice of divorced, separated and remarried parents contributing less for college remains “pretty prevalent.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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