Do Parents Have to Pay for College in Pennsylvania?

You have probably heard about Rachel Canning, the New Jersey teenager who sued her parents to pay for her tuition for private school and college after moving out of their home. At the time she sued her parents, Ms. Canning was 18 years old – an adult – making the case especially surprising to most parents. Ms. Canning lost the first round of her lawsuit when a judge declined to order her parents to pay child support and for her private school tuition. Most likely because Ms. Canning “voluntarily” left her parents’ residence. The judge was also probably reacting in part to the widespread negative media coverage. Ms. Canning since withdrew her claim for college tuition and reconciled with her parents.

When the story broke, comments about Ms. Canning on social media called her “spoiled” and “over entitled.” But, were her claims truly that outrageous or unusual? Not really. Courts in New Jersey routinely order divorced parents to pay for their children’s private school tuition and college education. The leading case is Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a parent’s duty to provide an education for their children includes a college education, making New Jersey probably the most draconian state when it comes to child support.

Ms. Canning’s case was somewhat unusual because her parents were not divorced or separated. However, legally they still owed Ms. Canning a duty of support and had the judge found that she left her home for good reasons, then he would have been well within the law had he ordered her parents to pay for her private school and college. Therefore, the answer the questions posed above is “yes” — if you or your child lives in New Jersey.

In contrast to New Jersey, courts in Pennsylvania cannot force parents to pay for their children’s college education.

Courts in Pennsylvania used to be able to order divorced, separated or unmarried parents to pay college education under Pennsylvania’s Act 62, 23 Pa. C.S. § 4327. That changed in 1995, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared Act 62 unconstitutional, as a violation of equal protection, because it did not impose an equal obligation on married parents. Pennsylvania courts, however, routinely require separated, divorced or unmarried parents to pay for private school tuition for emancipated children (i.e. children still in high school or under 18 years old) if the parents had previously voluntarily enrolled the child in private school.

The imposition of college cost on parents can obviously have a significant financial impact on them. While most parents want to help their children with college expenses, not all are able to do so. Having a court unilaterally impose those costs can create a significant hardship. Thus, we advise our clients to avoid being subject to New Jersey law if at all possible. In one case, I advised a Pennsylvania client whose wife moved to New Jersey with his child after separation to preemptively file for child support in Pennsylvania, even though he would be the party paying support. The client worked in New Jersey and could have been served with legal papers while working in New Jersey, potentially subjecting him to New Jersey’s support laws.