College Planning For Divorced Women

Mar. 08, 2017 4:14 AM ET
Russ Thornton profile picture
Russ Thornton

College planning is an important part of any parent’s journey, but for divorced parents, college planning is of particular importance because it requires overcoming the challenges of a truly divided household.

To better understand these challenges, I sat down with Jim Anderson, founder of Making College Worth It—a company that specializes in helping high school students and their parents plan strategically for college—to talk about the college planning process for divorced women.

The wisdom he shared was truly eye-opening, and if you’re a divorced or soon-to-be divorced mom, it’s wisdom that’s really worth paying attention to.

But before jumping headlong into Jim’s advice, let me explain in greater detail how a Professional College Planner works, and how parents can employ their services to help children thrive.

What is Professional College Planning

Unless you’ve spent time living out in California or up in the Northeast, the idea of a “professional college planner” might sound foreign.

To get you up to speed quickly, here’s a quick working definition you can use as a reference:

Professional college planning is all about ensuring your child gets into the school that’s best for them—academically, socially, culturally, professionally, and financially.

Paradigm Breaking

Southern students and their parents tend to spend a lot of time looking at large, regional schools—Georgia versus Florida versus Auburn versus Georgia Tech versus North Carolina, etc.

And while these are all fine schools, they’re different flavors of vanilla.

Other than the school colors, school mascots, and position on a map, they’re all pretty much the same in terms of on-campus, off-campus, and academic offerings.

Big classrooms. Big facilities. Big athletic teams. Big everything.

Some kids are built to thrive in that kind of an environment, but others aren’t.

Professional college planers challenge parents and children to think about universities in specific terms that go beyond name-brand recognition.

They push students to answer questions like…

  • Do I want to blend in or stand out at my college?
  • Am I an excellent note taker?
  • Do I get distracted easily in the class?
  • Do I perform better in smaller classrooms or bigger classrooms?
  • What do I want to do professionally?
  • Will the schools I’m considering give me the best chance of succeeding in that career?
  • Am I comfortable spending up to six years in pursuit of an undergraduate degree or do I want to be done in four years?

A professional college planner will use the answers to these and other questions as a roadmap for the college application and admissions process.

And while that roadmap might lead to a Florida or Georgia, it might also lead to a school like Emory or Wofford.

The Overall Value of Professional College Planners

Professional college planners provide helpful insights that will transform how your children think about the future of their education. In particular, they will help your kids get crystal-clear on two important things:

  1. Choosing the right college is about more than financial cost and name-brand recognition. It is also about the humanity, the experience, the environment, and the holistic development of the student.
  2. Only planning up until the point of admission is like only planning for the first-half of the marathon. The goal isn’t to simply get into college, the goal is to get into college, and then out of college in four years with a job.

While parents can struggle to convey the “big picture,” professional planners are paid to help kids understand that college is about more than good grades, good times, and a diploma—it’s now a highly competitive game to get young adults ready for a career.

College Planning Advice for Divorced Women from Professional College Planner Jim Anderson

Tip #1 – Get Started Early

Getting started early (even as early as 8th grade) with your child’s college prep is without question Jim’s #1 piece of advice for any divorced mom looking to get a leg-up on the college application process.

Why so early? As your child gets older and progresses into their teenage years, time becomes a highly limited commodity—classes get harder, athletics become more intense, casual friendships transform into all-consuming social lives, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Starting early means your child has a long, broad timeframe to think about (and prepare for) everything related to college. It is a timeframe that cultivates less stress and better results.

The later your child waits to get started, the more work they’ll have to complete inside a timeframe that’s growing shorter and narrower by the day.

Tip #2 – Partner with a Financial Planner

It is not a well-kept secret that college costs money—big money.

These days, even public, in-state universities cost an arm and a leg.

The cost of tuition alone is daunting for many families, never mind the total price tag when calculating for books, housing, dining, and transportation.

Fortunately, not all of this money needs to come out of your bank account. There are strategic ways to bring down the costs of a modern college education through need- and merit-based financial aid.


Encourage your child to focus their extra-curricular participation into the select few activities they are especially passionate about—acting, soccer, piano, speech & debate, etc.

These days, merit-based scholarships aren’t awarded to the Jack or Jill-of-all-trades; they’re awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional proficiency or passion in niche fields.

As far as college admissions departments are concerned, passion and leadership in one or two areas is a lot better than general participation in seven or eight activities.

But most importantly, do whatever it takes to help your kids excel in school. Most of the money available for scholarship is allotted to those students with the highest GPAs and test-scores (ACT, SAT, AP Exams, etc.). No, an SAT or algebra tutor billing at $40-an-hour, three hours per week isn’t cheap—but if it results in a university offering a $10,000+ annual scholarship, the economic ends will justify the means.


Partner with a financial planner to, as Jim puts it, “look as poor as possible.”

Secure all your financial information—including any information related to your divorce—and then sit down with a financial planner to move money strategically.

There are surprisingly easy (and completely legal) ways to shift income or assets in order to complete the FAFSA or the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile so your child becomes qualified for federal aid like the Pell Grant.

When working with your financial or college planner, pay attention to the asset considerations associated with each form of aid as they are not always the same. For example, the CSS Profile takes into account home equity, whereas the FAFSA does not.

Whatever need-based resource you want to try and secure, make sure you work to secure it sooner rather than later because need-based money dries up a lot faster than merit-based.

Tip #3 – Don’t Wait on Financial Aid

As Jim will tell you, it’s not enough to simply start thinking about college early on. Parents, particularly divorced parents, need to start moving the needle on their finances years ahead of time in order to stay ahead of the financial aid curve.

For one thing, not all grants are limitless. So, while the Pell Grant might not run out of funds, other Federal Secondary Education Grants secured through the US Department of Education will. The sooner you and your child can apply for these grants, the more likely you are to receive at least some of the money.

But, more importantly, getting started on financial aid early means you’ll be better positioned to get your income as low as possible for your 1040A or 1040EZ—the lower the income, the more FAFSA money your child will be qualified for.

(Quick side note! Remember that alimony is income in the eyes of the IRS and Department of Education.)

Additionally, if you are unemployed, a divorced homemaker, or a self-employed individual whose business has dried up, you’re likely to be considered a “displaced worker”, which means your child could qualify for an automatic “0” EFC (Expected Family Contribution) on their FAFSA, and more financial aid dollars.

So, how early should you start?

Jim recommends getting your finances reviewed and set before December 31st of your child’s sophomore year of high school. FAFSA will look at everything from January 1st of your child’s sophomore year-forward as the economic determinant of your Expected Economic Contribution.

Tip #4 – Talk Openly with Your Former Spouse

Like it or not, talking openly with your former spouse will help avoid unwanted surprises for both you and your child, who is about to engage in the most important phase of their academic career.

Who is the custodial parent?

Who is declaring your child on their tax return?

Who has to fill out and sign the financial aid documents? You, your ex, or both of you?

Which house did the child live in more during the last 12-months?

Have you or your spouse remarried? If so, it may be necessary to include the step-parent’s information on the financial aid documents.

Do the grandparents want to help? If so, that needs to be coordinated in order to avoid losing need-based aid.

Talking openly with your ex is going to help you both understand the most effective way to calculate your respective income, assets, and ability to contribute to your child’s continuing education.

Tip #5 – Do NOT Assume Public Universities Will Cost Less

This is a common mistake amongst single parents who are frantically trying to figure out an avenue to an affordable education for their kids.

The reality is that public schools—even public in-state schools—can cost more than small, liberal arts colleges.

Small, private schools tend to have more expansive financial aid capabilities that can dramatically reduce the overall cost of attendance.

Furthermore, securing the appropriate pre-requisite classes or electives for graduation requirements can be far more difficult at large public universities encumbered by strict budgets and legislative bureaucracy. Instead of taking four years, it could take your child five or six to graduate if they can’t get the right classes.

And while they may not be paying for those extra years in terms of full-time tuition, they will be paying for those extra years in terms of opportunity cost—an extra one to two years in school means an extra one to two-year delay in entering the workforce.

Tip #6 – Do NOT Rely on the High School Guidance Counselor

For most families—especially divorced families where parents are rarely speaking or thinking in unison—the high school guidance counselor is not going to cut it.

This isn’t an indictment of the talent, skill, or passion of high school guidance counselors—it’s an indictment of the conditions in which they’re commonly forced to work.

It is a numbers game—each counselor is usually responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of students.

Which means, rare is the counselor with the mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth necessary for focused attention - the type of focused attention you want your child to have in the college admission process.

The typical high school counselor will be able to give your child a list of suggested colleges based on their grades and test scores, as well as basic financial aid paperwork like FAFSA.

Aside from that, your child is really going to be fending for themselves.

Tip #7 – Think BEYOND the Major

When students and parents start looking at schools, it can be easy for them to zero-in on the availability and competitiveness of certain majors like business, economics, biology, or pre-law.

But as Jim will tell you, it’s important to think beyond the major as well.

Depending on where your child ultimately enrolls, they’ll need between 60 and 70 additional credits (electives) to graduate—that’s a lot of classes. It is essential to think about electives in terms of how they can be applied to the future.

Psychology of Birds might be a fun, interesting class—and an easy A—but how is it going to improve your child’s readiness for the uber-competitive professional landscape?

Electives are investments your child can make with long-term payoffs.

And considering how painfully expensive a college education is, you might as well get the most bang for your buck.

Tip #8 – Partner with a Professional College Planner

Partnering with a professional college planner is the easiest and most efficient way to streamline the college admission process, particularly if you’re a single parent.

Instead of fending for yourself, a professional college planner can help you compile a list of “best-fit” schools that account for your child’s academics, extra-curricular activities, personality, professional aspirations, and financial status.

But, more importantly, a professional planner will ensure your child prepares for, completes, and submits their academic applications and financial aid applications on time.

The Eight Tips in Summary

  1. Get started early
  2. Partner with a financial planner
  3. Do NOT wait on financial aid
  4. Talk openly with your former spouse
  5. Do NOT assume public universities will cost less
  6. Do NOT rely on the high school guidance counselor
  7. Think beyond the major
  8. Partner with a professional college planner

These eight pieces of advice are straight from the mind and mouth of a seasoned professional in the college planning industry who has helped hundreds of former high school students transition to successful university careers.

Do not take them for granted. Your child’s education is too important.

This article was written by

Russ Thornton profile picture
I’m Russ Thornton, founder of Wealthcare For Women, and I've been a financial advisor for over 28 years. As a young man in college, I watched my mother go through a divorce and struggle with her money and well-being. She really needed someone in her corner to help her gain the comfort and clarity around her money to live a better life. That's why my practice helps women like her do just that. You don't have to be worried and concerned about your money anymore. Let's start creating your amazing life.

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