According to BestColleges, the cost of a college education has soared since 2000. While average annual tuition was around $8,000 at the turn of the millennium, this number has increased beyond $14,000 in the modern era. Here’s the obvious question: Who pays the bill? Some might argue that students should simply get loans, but this debt can be crippling for a generation already struggling with a demoralizing housing market and out-of-control inflation. In the vast majority of cases, it is the parents who pay for their kids’ college costs. When you add divorce into the equation, things get a little complicated. 

Some States are Beginning to Include Tuition in Child Support

Most states do not require parents to cover tuition costs as part of normal child support payments. The logic is simple: When children reach college age, they are legal adults. Assuming they are not disabled in any way, these young adults are no longer dependent on their parents, and they should be responsible for their own financial affairs. In turn, parents should not be required to make additional payments to adults who are clearly capable of supporting themselves financially. 

However, some states have taken a different approach. A handful of jurisdictions have started to mandate the payment of college tuition as part of normal child support payments. Naturally, this means that child support continues into adulthood – a concept that would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. 

A notable example is Washington, a state that has introduced something called “post-secondary support.” Under this system, parents can petition to have their exes cover their child’s college tuition. As long as the child has been accepted into a post-secondary institution and they are under the age of 18, the court can force the non-primary custodial guardian to cover these expenses. In other cases, courts may order both parents to contribute. 

In making their decision, Washington family courts will evaluate the value of the degree – and whether it will lead to a high-paying job for the child. Other relevant factors include the child’s academic performance and whether the parents would have paid for college if they had remained together.

Can College Tuition Come Back to Haunt Divorced Parents?

What happens if parents never resolve the issue of college tuition during the divorce proceeding? You might assume that this subject would never resurface in court, but it shows a surprising tendency to come back and haunt parents years after the marriage has been dissolved. 

Recently, a story centering on Tom Cruise and his daughter Suri emerged. The article pointed out that while Cruise was paying about $33,000 per month in child support, his daughter was rapidly approaching her 18th birthday. Since the young adult seems intent on attending a prestigious fashion school in New York, questions have been raised over whether Cruise will contribute to her tuition costs. 

Presumably, he would not be required to do so. However, the world of high-net-worth divorces plays by its own set of rules – and Katie Holmes (Suri’s mother) could attempt to force Cruise to pay these tuition costs with help from her lawyers. It is not clear whether Holmes set any of her child support money aside for tuition costs or whether any money has been placed in a trust for Suri. 

Most Parents are Willing to Cover Tuition

At the end of the day, most parents are quite willing to cover tuition costs – and they do not need to be pressured to do so. Even relatively low-income parents show a tendency to devote serious portions of their income toward covering tuition for their young ones and taking legal action to mandate these payments is usually unnecessary. As with virtually all aspects of divorce, it is best to clearly define these agreements ahead of time – even if the child is only a few years old when the divorce is finalized.