Marry a Stranger to Save $50,000 in Tuition?

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, 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.


  1. says

    I say do it. Why not? Saving money and being creative enough to recognize a way to save that money is a skill that will go further in life than doing “the right thing”.

  2. says

    As interesting as this sounds, I don’t think I could do it. I’d just have to find another way. Marriage should be with someone you know and love, even though there are financial and economic benefits.

  3. says

    Frankly, I think there’s nothing wrong with it. These students clearly want to pursue a degree and get the best education possible, and are doing what thousands of people do everyday, and that’s use a loophole to the best of their advantage. However, I’d argue that their use of this loophole is actually extremely ethical, since they’re seeking out an affordable education for themselves, and it’s not motivated by greed.

    However, I also think this indicates a problem with marriage on the whole – it bothers me that many countries/states still outlaw gay marriage between people who love each other, but students who need to save money can marry and divorce at their convenience.

    I’m not trying to preach, but it is frustrating that marriage can be used as a unemotional tool for some, and is out of reach for people who genuinely love each other.

    • says

      @Money Rabbit — You bring up a great point that I hope other readers will also discuss. I try not to be political or voice political opinions, but this whole issue — people getting married solely for legal and financial convenience — really relates to the debate over gay marriage in our country. Can “defense of marriage” advocates argue that gay marriage is more of a “threat” to the sanctity of marriage than perfectly legal acts such as a marriage of financial convenience? Thanks for bringing it up. I’d love to hear more thoughts on the issue …

  4. says

    I don’t have a problem with it at all. I think it’s pretty smart actually. I would worry about the legal complications, I don’t know the ins and outs but if one person had a ton of debt or legal troubles could that come back to haunt their fake spouse?

    I also disagree with the last paragraph. If it’s immoral then it should be immoral for everyone; not ok for those who have a low income and wrong for those with more income.

    I think that anyone should be able to marry anyone they want for any reason. It’s between the two people getting married and no one else.

  5. says

    The whole ‘business’ of marriage is messed up and time for a major overhaul.

    Why the heck is the state getting involved in marriage is beyond me. A non interfering government? Start with this!

  6. says

    Hi Paula, while I don’t think I would do this, I can understand why people would. I know a few people who moved to a different state and established residency just to get cheap tuition. Since college is so expensive, people will go to extremes to save money.

    I agree with Ashley that the big danger is marrying someone irresponsible with money. While you are married, you are responsible for half of the other person’s debt. For example, if they have a tax penalty your wages can be garnished to pay it back.

  7. says

    One thing that didn’t get discussed is why out-of-state tuition is so much higher than in-state tuition. The reason is that residents have been paying taxes in the state, possibly for decades. Since college is subsidized by the resident’s taxes, it’s fair and reasonable to charge non-residents more.

    The tone of this post makes the higher cost seem unfair, but it’s really not. Students can always attend college in their own state at a lower cost. And, if they want to attend the top-notch public schools in California, they should expect to pay for it. In other words, if Elaine Davis and her parents didn’t want to pay the tuition at Berkeley, she should have stayed in Utah and attended BYU.

    I hate to sound like a grump, but I have been paying taxes in California for 30 years and our state is broke. College costs are high enough without people gaming the system. I have two college age kids and have been saving in their college funds since they were two. We shouldn’t have to subsidize students from out of state, who engage in a sham marriage.

    I hope they close this loophole.

    • says

      @Bret — I actually know a family that moved — that legitimately sold their home in Ohio, packed everything into cardboard boxes, and moved to Georgia — so that their two sons could qualify for the Georgia HOPE Scholarship. This scholarship is a state-funded grant covering full tuition + room + board + books. It is awarded to every GA high school graduate, regardless of their family’s financial situation, who has at least a 3.0 GPA and who will attend an in-state college. It was a powerful enough incentive to cause this family to say goodbye to their friends and move to a different state.

  8. says

    One way or another, this is fraud, and its only a matter of time before the law catches up with the perpetrators.

    Meanwhile, anyone deluded and narcissistic enough to participate in a sham marriage like this run the risk of having their life ruined by a similarly unscrupulous “mate”.

    Its true, financial aid discriminates against those who succeed. But it is the very institutions you seek to attend that sponsor the structure that rewards failure and poverty with public generosity. Gaming the system is not the answer.

  9. says

    I’d do it. I decided college isn’t for me, but I’d marry a stranger so they could get the benefit.

    Anyone want to marry for this reason email me.

  10. says

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