College support is back in the news as a young woman resident in New Jersey has sued her parents to contribute to her undergraduate education at Philadelphia’s Temple University. The case brings us to revisit the question of how college agreements need to be molded to meet with the new realities of post secondary education.
First we should note that New Jersey does permit Courts to award contributions to a child’s college education even where parents have not agreed. That once was the law in Pennsylvania but all of that changed in 1990 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Blue v. Blue, that Courts had no business imposing this obligation without legislative authority. We covered that sad history in our blog titled “The Emancipated Child” published on June 23, 2009.
But the mere fact that Pennsylvania no longer requires support of adult children after completion of secondary school does not end the discussion. Many parents want to be a part of that experience but that desire is more often than not tempered by the desire to do this in tandem with the other parent. There once was a time when a parent would gratuitously state: “I want to fund my kid’s college.” But that was in a day when such an obligation could be paid in total for less than a single semester at a private university costs today. Times have changed.
Aside from the escalating cost of post-secondary education, the most important change in recent years has been limitations on the “ability to comply” with these agreements. A generation ago, employment and career paths were more stable. A parent in his/her late 30s or early 40s with an established career could feel comfortable in the belief that their well paying job would be there when the college admission letter arrived. Today, that job stability is much more fragile. In the past decade it has been the mid to senior level executive who has been the target of downsizing, often after a lengthy career with a single employer. Suddenly, the college contribution provisions of an agreement that seemed an afterthought when negotiated in 2000 are an almost impossible obligation because the parent owing the obligation is now unemployed or earning less than he or she did a decade before. Very few of these college support agreements contain clauses mitigating the extent of the obligation to fit the new economic realities. Today, the attorney needs to address this subject with clauses that address the contingency.
The other subjects are ones of long standing. They are:
- Limiting or in some other way framing the extent of the obligation. A state school like in Pennsylvania can cost less than $20,000 per year. Some prestigious colleges can triple that cost. More and more parents are eschewing the old concept that their child will go wherever he or she is admitted. These costs are paid in after tax dollars and parents are correct to question the value of what they are buying.
- Children and parents owe each other a duty to consult about where the child will be enrolled if the parents are to contribute. No parent wishes to learn this vital and expensive news by surprise. We have litigated cases where the failure to consult has been fatal to the enforcement of the obligation to contribute.
- Absent extenuating circumstances such as illness, children should be given a clear understanding that enrollment must be continuous and full time if a contractual college provision is to be workable.
- Last but not least is the matter of academic performance. Full time enrollment with failing grades is not an investment but an economic waste. A minimum grade point average is the least the student can contribute to this lofty enterprise in self-improvement.
So if you are in the midst of negotiating an agreement, make certain that these details are addressed in some way so that you can have some control over your child’s destiny to the extent that it is underwritten with your resources.