Will Financial Aid Officers Be Understanding If My Dad Refuses to Pay?

I will be a high school senior in the fall. My parents are divorced and my father refuses to pay for college unless I attend the private university where he works. I could go there tuition-free and he would only have to cover room & board plus books and other miscellaneous expenses. I don't want to go there for two reasons:

  1. It's too close to home and too familiar
  1. This school is decent but I honestly think I can do a lot “better." I have grades and test scores that might get me into an Ivy.

My parents' combined income is just high enough that I don't think we'll qualify for any financial aid, and my mom definitely can't afford the cost of an expensive college without help from my dad. I know that getting free tuition is a good deal, but I also feel that I've worked hard all through school and I deserve the opportunity to go to a better college away from home.

Will colleges consider only my mother's income and give me financial aid, if I explain that I have a “deadbeat dad?"

Your father is not a “deadbeat dad" unless he isn't paying the child support or alimony that the divorce decree has required. Sometimes divorce decrees also include an arrangement for sharing college expenses, too, but it doesn't sound like this is the situation in your family. If not, your father isn't obligated to contribute at all.

Unfortunately, however, colleges will not adjust financial aid awards just because a parent refuses to pay. Some college officials might empathize with your situation and be critical of your father for limiting your options if he is in a position to offer more support, but you still can't expect your financial aid packages to compensate for his stance.

So here are a few things that you CAN do:

  1. If your grades and test scores are high enough to make you an Ivy contender, you could aim for merit scholarships at some of the very selective colleges that offer them. For example, places like USC, Tulane, Emory, Wake Forest, Boston College, and U. of Miami all offer full-tuition or even full cost-of-attendance merit awards for their most sought-after candidates. Although the Ivy League colleges offer only need-based aid, you should certainly think about the other well-regarded institutions that have successfully used big bucks to lure strong students away from the Ivies.
  1. Apply to FAFSA-only colleges. The colleges that use just the FAFSA (and not the CSS PROFILE or another comparable school-specific form) will look at ONLY the income of your custodial parent. So if you live more than 50 percent of the time with your mother, then her income alone will be used to determine your financial need. Note, however, that the most selective private colleges and even some of the more selective public ones (e.g., University of Michigan, University of Virginia) use the PROFILE. But there are other excellent public universities that don't. So if one of your key goals is to go to college away from home, you might be able to accomplish this by applying to FAFSA-only colleges that will not consider your father's income when your aid award is decided. Try using the College Board's online Expected Family Contribution calculator to get a sense of what you would have to pay if your dad is out of the mix. Be sure to select “Federal Methodology" at the start of the process in order to get an EFC for FAFSA-only schools. Go to You can also try the online “Net Price Calculator" that every college is required to post online. Although the results that you get from the NPC should be taken with a block of salt, you might want to play around with a couple to get at least a ballpark idea of what your costs will be. For the FAFSA-only colleges, you will need your mom's tax information before proceeding.
  1. Bite the bullet and save a boatload of dough by enrolling at your Dad's university, but insist on spending a year abroad (or attending some other off-campus program such as Semester in Washington, where available) that will give you a break from the local scene. You should have your dad find out right away if your free-tuition deal will be valid if you are attending an off-campus program. If the program is sponsored by your father's college, the chances are good that it will be.
  1. Apply to a dream college or two anyway. Even if your dad staunchly insists now that he won't pay for you to attend, it can't hurt to wait and see. If you are accepted, he may not be able to resist the thought of tooling around his own campus with a “Harvard" or “Princeton" decal on his rear window. And if you aren't accepted, then you won't have to go through life resenting your father and wondering, “What if?" A denial might also make attending the tuition-free home-town school feel a bit less heinous.

Finally, because misery does love company, rest assured that you are not alone. There are thousands of teenagers whose parent or parents won't pay their fair share of college costs, and the kids get stuck with undesirable college options and also, very often, with time-consuming jobs during college and major debt afterwards. So at least consider yourself fortunate, that if you do end up at your dad's university, you may graduate debt-free and with funds socked away for graduate school or to help you establish your post-college life.