Parents don't owe their kids a college education

How can parents can be forced to pay for the higher education of someone who is legally an adult?

It’s hard for parents to win these days. First they’re criticized for being helicopter parents who won’t let go of their children once their offspring reach adulthood. Now, at least in New Jersey, they can’t let go: They’re on the hook to pay for their children’s college education.

The much-publicized case of Caitlyn Ricci resurfaced this week, as the courts again ordered her parents to shell out the money for her community college education. Her parents, who are divorced, said they had problems with both Ricci’s behavior and with the terms of their divorce agreement, in which the father wasn’t supposed to have to contribute to his daughter’s education if she no longer lived with one of her parents. Ricci had moved out because of the dispute with her parents. They previously were ordered to pay for part of her private-college tuition as well, though they’re fighting that on the grounds that Ricci failed to apply for all available financial aid.

Financial aid, financial shmaid. The bigger issue here has little to do with whether Ricci is a deserving daughter or applied for financial aid. It concerns whether or how parents can be forced to pay for the higher education of someone who is legally an adult. We don’t even have to let them live in our houses, we can’t control what contracts they sign or the other decisions they make. How did we become liable for an adult’s college costs?

It all stems, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, from a 1982 judicial decision — one that begs to be considered by a higher court. The decision says: “In general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students.”

In general, maybe that’s true — we should  help our kids through college when we can. Most of us would love to do that for our kids. But there’s a big gap between “should” and “must.”

And we thought California was the nanny state.

Should parents have judges peering over their shoulders, deciding what their financial capabilities are, beyond caring for minor children? On the one hand, financial advisors are suggesting that parents let their kids take more loans, because the parents need the money more for their retirement. Except not when a court says otherwise.

Or let’s forget what parents can afford; how about what they choose to purchase with their own money? Higher education is of paramount importance to me, and I’m willing to sacrifice for my children to have it. Most parents are probably the same way. But that’s my set of values. Other parents might have different plans for their money, or other thoughts about how a college education should be financed. Once a child is an adult, the legal obligation should end; it’s the ties of love and our ambitions for our children, as well as financial realities, that dictate the next step.

Whatever happens with Caitlyn Ricci, the bigger issue shouldn’t be allowed to rest there. It is astonishing to me, considering how online comments reflect this same viewpoint, that there has not been a move in the New Jersey legislature to set the rules right. What’s next, an obligation to pay for medical school for a 32-year-old?

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