Would you get married to save thousands on college tuition?
That’s a strategy some students are employing these days, taking advantage of a loophole in which financial aid is determined based on their parent’s income if they’re single and under 22, but determined by their personal joint income if they’re married.
An 18-year-old only child whose parents earn a combined $75,000 a year is classified as middle-class and receives limited financial aid. But with an on-campus estimated total cost of $21,000 per year including room and board (based on in-state figures provided by the University of Colorado), it is unlikely the 18-year-old’s parents saved enough to pay in cash. This student would be responsible for enduring tens of thousands in unsubsidized loans.
If that same 18-year-old made a pact with one of her classmates to get “married-on-paper,” the couple’s income — not their parent’s income — would be the metric that financial aid offices consider. As college freshmen, their combined household income, stemming from part-time work and summer jobs, would probably be less than $10,000 to $15,000 per year. This classifies them as “at or near” poverty level and renders them eligible for premium financial aid packages.
While it’s illegal to marry someone for the purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship, it is perfectly legal to marry someone for the purpose of obtaining college financial aid or gaining in-state tuition residency, according to WalletPop.
Marriage for money is also practiced by students attending out-of-state colleges and universities, who must pay more than triple the tuition that in-state residents pay. At the University of Colorado, in-state tuition costs $8,511 annually, while out-of-state tuition is $29,493 per year.
The New York Times ran a story about out-of-state students attending the University of California, widely considered one of the top-notch public schools in the nation. These students wanted the excellent-quality education but suffered under the out-of-state tuition increase. So they took an unusual solution:
When students marry, they can automatically claim themselves as independent, provided their parents do not claim them as dependents on their taxes. After that, gaining in-state tuition is a breeze.
A few years ago, a student from the Midwest believed she could not afford the annual $30,000 in student fees (including $20,000 in out-of-state tuition), so she posted on Facebook that she was looking for a husband …
An out-of-state student whom she did not know responded to her post, and they married in 2007, the summer before her junior year. She graduated in 2009 and estimated that the marriage had saved her $50,000. The couple has divorced.
A small industry is cropping up to arrange these marriages, such as the matchmaking website whypaytuition.com, which offers to set up a:
A marriage of convenience: no romance, no love, no sex, not even living together. You need to meet one time, get a marriage license, get married by a Justice of the Peace and then get a divorce after college is finished.
WalletPop weighed in on the controversy in a Valentine’s Day post, quoting a divorce and family law attorney who recommended getting a strong pre-nuptial agreement before the marriage.
Still, the few thousand dollars it might cost to get a pre-nuptial agreement pales in comparison to the savings some students see:
After she was accepted to Berkeley in 2006, Elaine Davis of Utah tried hard to establish California residency. She registered to vote in California, got a California driver’s license, worked full time in the state, filed her own taxes and had her parents stop claiming her as a dependent.
When Berkeley still denied her residency (living in an apartment owned by her father disqualified her as independent), Ms. Davis married a childhood friend. She saved $38,000 in out-of-state tuition over two years.
Personally, I paid out-of-state tuition at the University of Colorado for two years before I was recognized as single and independent, earning the right to in-state tuition. In those two years, I paid $60,000 in tuition while my in-state classmates paid only $16,000. While I was aware of my peers marrying to save the $44,000 difference, I found this morally questionable — it reduces marriage to a mere contract — and I wanted no part in it. My parents felt the same way, advising me that $44,000 in the grand scheme of life is a small fee for a clear conscience.
I won’t judge others who chose differently, especially if they come from a very low-income background. Those who are truly in need, including people who are the first in their family to attend college, might not have the luxury of affording a clean marriage record. Or do they? What are your thoughts?
What are your thoughts? Would you marry for money — or do you find this morally wrong? Is this a great way to lower the cost of college? Or does this threaten the sacred institution of marriage? Weigh in with your opinions.
Related posts: My Money Blog writes Getting Married to Save on College Tuition?
Thanks to this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance for including my post on the danger of thinking that everyone has debt.