I came across this article in the New York Times titled “Parents’ Financial Support May Not Help College Grades” and immediately thought of Section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. That’s the funny thing about the law: it tends to pop up everywhere you look.
So, what is a 513 contribution? Well, 513 refers to 750 ILCS 5/513. 513 says that a child’s parents have an obligation to contribute to his or her college expenses. This contribution is based on what each parent can afford to pay after the child has used all grants, scholarships, and the like to reduce his or her tuition burden. In many instances, the amount a parent is called upon to contribute is capped at the cost of a local state school. Section 513 is much more detailed than that synopsis but the takeaway point is that a child is entitled to support from both his parents when it comes to his educational needs.
The above linked article is a summary of a scientific study that found an inverse correlation between how much a parent contributes to his or her child’s college expenses and that child’s performance. The working theory is that the financial assistance causes the child to take his or her education less seriously than he or she would if the costs were out-of-pocket.
I’ve heard judges remark that Section 513 puts them in the unenviable position of deciding how much a parent should pay towards his or her child’s college. There is a lot of grey area here. I think most people would agree that a parent has an obligation to do what he or she can to ease the financial strain of college enrollment. So, if we take two parents, each earning $100,000, and their child who wants to attend Northern Illinois, it is easy to say that each parent should contribute something because they can and because college is prohibitively expensive for most people. The grey area is how much they contribute. What this article demonstrates is that there is no right answer and there is such a thing as contributing too much.
This complicates the judge’s job in a variety of ways. The first is that it more or less rules out percentage orders. If we say that most parents should contribute 20% of their net income for their child’s college expenses, then we run the risk that higher earners will contribute more than they would like to. A parent with a $200,000 income may have a decent argument that his or her contribution will, in fact, hurt his or her child’s academic performance. Percentage orders will also place an undue burden on people with lower incomes, who have a smaller financial cushion to begin with.
The second problem this raises is that ordering a parent to pay the entirety of his or her child’s college tuition may be against that child’s best interests. If that’s the case, then how much is too much? Are there any intangible qualities the child may possess that will affect this determination? Since the child may be an adult at the time this determination is made, are his or her wishes dispositive?