Dual Households and Financial Aid: Getting Both Parents to Participate

As many of us know, guiding two-family households through the financial aid process can be difficult. The relationship between divorced and separated parents can range from full cooperation to extremely adversarial. Often we find ourselves with one parent as the primary parent and in full support of a school shift (maybe to a tuition charging school for the first time or a shift from day to boarding) and the impression is that the other parent is completely opposed and unwilling to participate in the school financial aid process at all. How often have you also been told that one parent refuses to contribute to the cost of tuition, when in reality you have had no contact with that parent and only have a one sided story? Regardless of the situation, there are opportunities to achieve participation from both parents. I say this with the understanding that some schools will allow for a parent to submit a court order stating they are the primary decision maker. However, it has been my experience that need-based financial aid requires the participation of both parents regardless of court orders.

Much can be learned from outreach and patience with the opposing parent. In the most simple terms, I have found a SPEC PLEA (catchy I know) can make all of the difference: Separate, Persistent, Empathetic Contact with Patience, Listening and Emphasis on Advantage (ie. The values and opportunity for the child).

Time and again, I’ve had one parent explain how the other parent won’t participate in the process; won’t even consider paying for independent school; won’t support enrollment, etc. I can feel the struggles of the parent through the myriad of details they provide; however, by the end of these types of conversations I typically would offer two options to the primary parent (P1). I gently explain that it is important to have the second parent (P2) participate in the process so that we can consider the child for financial aid support. At the same time, I recognize that this is a challenging situation. I offer several ways to accomplish this. The first is for P1 to reach out to P2 to see if that parent can be encouraged to participate. Second, I offer to reach out and engage with P2 myself. Even if P1 is unsure, I explain that I am happy to give it a try and they tend to agree to let me help.

This is where being persistent and expressing empathy are important. Establishing contact with P2 may take some time, but I can count on one hand the few I have failed to engage over the last 20 years. Once reached, it is imperative that P2 is heard. This parent may express frustration about P1, be angry at your outreach, and share a very different side of the family story. The most important aspect is to hear them, stay out of the issues, and get them to a place where they understand three important factors:

Their participation in the financial aid process is separate from P1’s process and is completely confidential. P1 cannot see anything submitted by P2 and vice versa. Period.
The school is not going to determine or dictate what one parent pays vs. the other. Financial Aid doesn’t work that way. The school will make one determination of an award grant for the child.
The child will not be able to be considered for financial aid without the participation of both parents in the financial aid process.

The emphasis on advantage is an important part of this process. In many cases, the child is lost amidst the high level of tension surrounding the parent separation. When P2 is engaged and understands the advantage the school opportunity brings for the child, it can be game changing. Again, P2 may take some persuading and it can be time consuming. I have found though, that once they are brought into the equation in a way that is separate from P1 and all the discord of the situation, P2 has the opportunity to feel connected and look at the process as it relates to the best interests of the child. P2 may not come around on your first try but be patient and don’t give up.

There are times you may need to be creative. If child support is not being paid and the sense of the situation is that P2 is unable to financially contribute to an independent school education, you may need to shorten the process for that parent just so you can verify that, in fact, there is no income. An example of this would be if a parent sends you a copy of the most recent tax return with a W2 and an email that says that they do not pay any child support. This often is enough in such cases to verify that P2 cannot contribute to the cost of education, especially if this parent is not already supporting the child financially. If there is ever a reason to believe this is not the case, you may decide to contact them to re-engage in the conversation.

In other cases, with the approach of a SPEC PLEA, you may get a parent to comply with your FA policies and financial aid application submission. This allows you to consider the child for aid and, in the end, determine if the family qualifies. Be careful to not take sides with one parent over another and listen with patience and empathy even after an award or DNQ has been issued. If you have brought P2 along in the process and won them over with even just a sliver of the advantage of the child enrolling at your school, you might be surprised with the willingness of P2 once an acceptance offer is on the table. The sweat and effort of some SPEC PLEA’s may seem over the top at times, but the reward of a successful, sustained enrollment is worth it!

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About the author 

Jennifer Sheppard

A 1993 graduate of Dartmouth College, Jennifer spent one year working for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. and then moved across the country to Pebble Beach, California to become associate director of admission at Stevenson School. This initial role began a now 25 year career as a professional in independent school admission and financial aid spanning two coasts, six schools and student grade levels from infant through grade 12. Aside from running admission and financial aid programs at various schools, Jennifer has also served as a resident faculty member and student advisor. She helped to develop the SAO Common Application for the primary grades and has served as a mentor to those just entering the admission profession. She believes deeply in the accessibility of independent schools to families of diverse backgrounds as well as the impact of such work on individual students. Her previous schools include: Stevenson School (CA), The Urban School of San Francisco (CA), The Pennington School (NJ), George School (PA), Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart (NJ), St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MS).

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