Children of divorce have less money for college

A recent study published in The Journal of Family Issues studied the impact of divorce on contributions to college costs. Divorce can take a substantial financial toll on the family. Is that impact limited to the lifestyle of the parents, or are the children of divorce just as negatively impacted?

The study (abstract available here: abstract, article about it here) found that even when divorced parents had incomes similar to those of married parents, they still contributed less to their children’s college education. It seems that it’s not the splitting of the assets and financial trauma that is having the impact, but rather it’s something else. It seems that the dissolution of the family unit reduced the willingness of the parents to invest in their own children, in spite of their financial ability to do so. It could be that divorced parents are more likely to have a new nuclear family—and new children for whom college support looms, thus diluting their investment in their children from a previous marriage. Or perhaps these parents are remarried and their new spouse frowns on investing in their children from a previous marriage. Whatever the underlying cause—it seems to be psychosocial and not financial, since the study compared divorced and married couples with the same income and still found a significant difference in support.

What can the system do to help these children of divorce? Many states (currently 18) allow for child support to be extended beyond the age of 18 to help support college tuition costs. The study refers to these states as “postmajority states.” In California, under Family Code § 4026, the state may award child support past the age of 18 for, “Costs related to the educational or other special needs of the

children.” The study looked at whether these statutes are working. The authors found that living in a “postmajority state” was not associated with increased parental contributions for college tuition. So, § 4026 hasn’t fixed the problem.

Children of divorce already face increased stress and psychological difficulties. It also appears that they will be shouldering heavier student loan loads and may be discouraged from pursuing higher education as a result. The legislature and educational institutions need to pursue a solution that works better than Family Code § 4026.

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