By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES, March 6 A college degree is
increasingly seen as a key to success in the 21st century. Does
that mean parents have to pay for it?
Last month a New Jersey teenager estranged from her parents
filed a lawsuit seeking living and schooling costs from them.
The case has focused attention on the question of whether
parents - even those who are not divorced or separated - owe
their children a higher education.
New Jersey is among the states that have gone furthest in
deciding that they do. In 1982 the state's supreme court ruled
that college can be considered a necessity. Subsequent court
cases and New Jersey state laws have established that
financially capable parents in divorce cases can be required to
help pay for college, family law experts say.
"New Jersey is very progressive," said Brian Schwartz, an
attorney in Summit, New Jersey, and chairman of the New Jersey
State Bar Association's family law section. "Thirty years ago
our Supreme Court said that college is no longer just for the
wealthy and elite."
Several other states have laws or legal precedents that
allow child support orders to include money for higher
But a few states have gone the other way. California and New
Hampshire are among those with laws that limit divorced parents'
obligations to pay for higher education.
Most states do not require parents to pay for college, but
they typically enforce divorce agreements that obligate a parent
to cover higher education costs.
Even in progressive New Jersey, Rachel Canning's lawsuit
against her parents could set a precedent, since current laws do
not address the obligations of intact families.
Without a divorce, there is a constitutional right "to raise
your child as you see fit, as long as there isn't abuse or
neglect," said Jeralyn Lawrence, a lawyer with Norris McLaughlin
& Marcus in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and chairwoman-elect of the
bar association's family law section.
Those rights were affirmed in a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court
decision, Troxel v. Granville, about a case regarding
grandparent visitation rights, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
wrote that "the interest of parents in the care, custody, and
control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the
fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court."
FINANCIAL AID ISSUE
Canning, 18, left her family home in Lincoln Park, New
Jersey, in October. She says she was kicked out; her parents say
she left because she refused to follow household rules. Two
weeks ago she filed a lawsuit in an effort to get her parents to
pay for her living costs, tuition at the Catholic high school
where she is a senior and her future college expenses.
Canning lost the first round this week, when a judge ruled
her parents did not have to pay emergency support or an overdue
tuition bill. The judge said he would rule on other issues,
including college costs, next month.
If Canning's parents were divorcing, a judge would use 12
factors established in the 1982 Newburgh v. Arrigo decision to
determine their responsibility for contributing toward a college
education, Lawrence said.
Those include a parent's background, values, goals and
ability to pay, according to the opinion written by Justice
Stewart Pollock. He also cited the child's aptitude and
relationship to the parent, "including mutual affection and
shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and
Courts step into decisions that would normally be made by
the parents to prevent the children from becoming casualties of
a breakup or having their educations used as a bargaining chip
in the divorce, Schwartz said.
Even in states that obligate divorced parents to pay for
college, parents with intact marriages can refuse to help or
insist their offspring pay their own way.
However, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz said a
parent's unwillingness to pay for college can severely handicap
a child's ability to get help elsewhere.
Federal and private financial aid formulas typically use the
parents' income and assets to determine need. A parent who is
able to pay but refuses to can prevent a child from getting any
need-based aid, said Kantrowitz, who publishes the education
resource site Edvisors Network ().
Kantrowitz said he often gets emails and calls from students
who have left home "voluntarily or involuntarily" and whose
parents refuse to pay for college.
"I often encourage the student to talk with their college
financial aid administrator, since sometimes the aid
administrator can address the parents' concerns without bringing
up an emotional context," Kantrowitz said. "But often these
issues can't be reconciled."