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How is a Parent’s Contribution to a Child’s College Education Determined in a Divorce Action?

Nov 26, 2018 | Written by: William J. Rudnik, Esq. |

The law in New Jersey requires individuals who have children and get divorced to contribute to their children’s college education as long as they are financially able.  That does not mean the parents have to pay for the most expensive college, or that the parents must split the entire cost of college. 

There is a list of factors from the case of Newburgh v. Arrigo that the court will consider in deciding each party’s contribution to college.  They include:

  1. Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
  2. The effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
  3. The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
  4. The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
  5. The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
  6. The financial resources of both parents;
  7. The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
  8. The financial resources of the child including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
  9. The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
  10. The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
  11. The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
  12. The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

If a case proceeds to trial, the court will not address contribution to college unless the attendance at college is imminent (e.g., if a child is a senior in high school, or is already in college).  Prior to that point, typically the court will consider the issue as not “ripe” for a determination. 

In a divorce case that is resolved by agreement, the parties will typically address how college will be handled if they have children.  In cases where there are young children, generally agreements are less specific in regard to college contribution.

The language in agreements can range from very vague and general (e.g., the parties will address college prior to each child’s attendance at college) to much more specific (e.g., requiring parents to contribute a certain dollar amount or a certain percentage of the out-of-pocket expenses).  The reason why the court will want to wait to decide about college, and why it is difficult to be very specific regarding each party’s contribution to college, is that most of the information needed is not known until the child has been accepted to college. 

In more recent years, with the enormous cost of college, parties have attempted to restrict their contribution by including language that they will contribute a certain percentage up to whatever the amount is for in-state tuition room and board at Rutgers University, sometimes referred to as the Rutgers “cap.”  Often the court in deciding cases, and the parties in settling cases, will require the children to share in the cost of college.  Typically, that would be done by requiring the children to contribute either through summer employment, their own savings, or student loans. 

In litigating the issues, whether before a divorce or after, often the court will require a hearing, which is essentially a trial.  While not common, sometimes the parties will have experts involved, which will further increase the costs.  The attorney fees for a hearing for both sides combined often exceeds an entire year of college tuition, room and board.  It is better for the parties to resolve the issues rather than litigate.

It is important for both parties to start to address the college contribution process when the child is a junior in college.  The parent of primary residence should make sure the parent of alternate residence is involved in the college selection process and is notified of every step in visiting schools, preparing financial aid documents, applying to schools, etc.  Otherwise, there is a risk the parent of alternate residence will claim he/she should not have to contribute to college because he/she was not involved in the process. 

In the event you are the parent of alternate residence, you should reach out to the parent of primary residence to discuss college and make sure you are involved in the process in order to have some say in where the child attends school.  Unless the parties have unlimited means, cost is always a significant factor in deciding where the child should attend college.  While years ago, courts often allowed children to attend college wherever they wanted and required the parents to pay for it, courts have become more mindful of the exorbitant costs.  Courts have become more reluctant to require parents to take out substantial loans, take home equity loans or invade their retirement in order to fund their children’s college education.

The contribution to college issue is not a black and white area of the law.  The goal should always be to try to resolve the issues and spend the money on your children’s college education rather than funding your lawyer’s children’s education.  Because of the complexity involved in this area of the law, it is recommended that you consult with an attorney.

I have been a certified matrimonial law attorney since 2008, and all three of the family law attorneys at my office are certified matrimonial law attorneys.  If you have any questions regarding college contribution, or family law, please contact me at 908-735-5161 or


William J. Rudnik, Esq. is certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Law Attorney.  In addition to handling divorce litigation, he is qualified as a Mediator in the field of Family Law under the New Jersey Court rules, and he is trained in Collaborative Divorce. Contact Mr. Rudnik at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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