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Can child support cover college costs?

It's August, which means that back-to-school season is in full swing. It's time to wind down the late nights, relaxed rules and flexibility of the summer and get back into the school-year routines of homework, specific bedtimes and endless soccer and baseball practices. As a divorced parent, the familiarity and structure of the fall season may be a welcome break from the craziness of summer.

This year, however, it will be different. This year is your child's last year of high school. You may have been able to ignore it for most of the summer, but the reality is finally here: Your child will be leaving the nest soon for college. Most high school seniors apply to college in the fall. Maybe you took the time to visit a few universities last spring break or over the summer. All of this anticipation has probably got you thinking: how are you going to pay for it all?

Understanding the costs of college

Most parents understandably feel apprehensive about how to pay for college. According to U.S. News & World Report, the price of in-state tuition at four-year universities has grown 65 percent over the last decade. The average cost of tuition is now $34,699 per year at private institutions. Costs are slightly lower for publicly funded states schools: $9,528 for in-state residents and $21,632 for out-of-state students.

Tuition in Colorado tends to be slightly higher than the national average. For example, the University of Denver, a private institution, costs $48,669 per year. The public University of Colorado system costs on average $13,237, though prices fluctuate depending on which campus your student attends.

Expenses don't stop at tuition, either. Students will also be responsible for covering on-campus fees, like student activity fees and technology fees. The costs of on-campus room and board - which many schools require freshmen to utilize - typically run a few thousand dollars, not to mention textbooks, which are sold at notoriously high mark-ups.

All of these costs add up to one giant bill that must be paid each semester.

Covering the costs of college

The good news in all of this is that many students qualify for financial aid to help pay for college. Maybe you are the parent who has pushed your child to apply for any and all the scholarships you can find. Even with this financial support, though, most families will need to take out student loans to cover the full cost of attending college.

In general, child support in Colorado terminates when a child turns 19. By law, the court cannot order a parent to pay for college in addition to existing child support payments. So, if your child is a PSEO student taking college classes during high school, payment must be covered from existing support. A child who takes college level courses or Advanced Placement courses in high school can sometimes start college as a sophomore, thereby saving a year's tuition. It also is helpful if your college age child has been working to contribute to his or her educational expenses.

Additionally, the court cannot order a parent to pay for college if the parents' child support agreement was created or modified after July 1, 1997. Even if the agreement was created before this date (and therefore potentially subject to a court order), the court cannot enforce payment for college expenses after the child turns 21. Moreover, in terms of child support law, "college expenses" only includes tuition, fees and textbooks – not room and board.

Ideally, you and your ex have a great co-parenting relationship, so while complicated, paying for college is something you can work out between yourselves without legal intervention. However, if you're having trouble negotiating this issue, you may want to work with a parenting coordinator or consider mediation to find an acceptable – and affordable – solution.

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