The thing about co-parenting is that even when a marriage ends, parenting your shared children never does — even when they turn 18 and the courts no longer set parameters or offer direction for how to co-parent.
While children attend college usually after they turn 18, the college selection and application process begins long before that, so it is imperative that parents figure out how to work together in the best interests of their child’s future.
Up until the age of 18, children’s lives – structural, financial and otherwise – are guided by specific court parameters that inform Parenting Time Agreements. It’s very clear in a Divorce Judgment who pays what and when.
But it’s rare to articulate who will pay for college or other costs incurred after children turn the age of majority – leaving it in the hands of parents who may not get along or even communicate.
Standardized testing, college tours and financial aid applications occur during high school. Who’s going to pay for college? Who’s taking the kid to visit campuses? How will the ultimate choice of where to enroll be made?
I have seen parents who take their kids on college tours, start looking at all kinds of possibilities for their future, acquire applications and more, but they do not involve or invite the other parent to participate.
There may be one parent who is better skilled at doing that stuff or more interested, and that’s OK. Children gravitate toward the parent who is involved and interested in the college search process.
But the other parent should not be left out. Especially if there is any expectation that the other parent is going to contribute financially.
It’s really unfair to make any decisions or lead your child to want to make decisions that may be unrealistic for your family. Both parents must lay out clearly and early how they will be involved in this next chapter of your child’s education.
I’ve seen situations where both parents are very interested in participating and they end up getting competitive about it, turning their kid into a ping pong ball. Not fair!
Parents must try to look at the college search process through their child’s perspective. Junior and senior years of high school are overwhelming years. All the kids talk about what they’re doing next. They feel pressure from their guidance counselor and their English teacher to work on essays and applications, and colleges are sending them marketing materials in the mail every single day.
With all this chaos and clutter, they need to rely on their parents to keep things calm and help guide them in a way that is sensible and keeps them from descending into anxiety.
For children of high-conflict divorce, this time can be maddening.
Many worry about their parents getting mad at each other or arguing more than usual. If they’re used to their parents fighting over everything from uniforms to calculators, they might not be sure how college will be paid for. And they may not be comfortable asking.
Divorced parents should try to coordinate with each other to make the college process as easy as possible, and not add extra layers of stress to their child’s life.
In terms of financing college, parents should speak directly to one another about what they plan to contribute and then, together, inform their child. And then it’s important to have an honest discussion about what that will look like. Most kids have no idea how to go about paying for college if they are on the hook for a portion of tuition and expenses!
As long as parents are in agreement about how to conduct the college search, it doesn’t matter if they alternate visits and tours or go all together. If possible, start thinking about this in 10th grade. Decide whether to take the ACT or SAT. Have a family discussion on the institutions you want to consider. Decide whose financial information will be on the FAFSA form (hint: it should be the parent who earns less money, to give your child a chance at scholarships and loans).
Ultimately, do whatever you can to be cooperative, so you don’t add stress and anxiety to your child’s college search process. So many divorced parents say they just want what’s best for their children, but their behavior does not always match that desire.
This is a big time in a child’s life. Make it easier, and fruitful. Once your child graduates and becomes an adult, it’s up to them whether they want to have a close relationship with you. And if you purposely and carelessly make their lives harder in high school, they might decide it’s just not worth it.