College Expenses and the SUNY Cap

The issue of college expenses has grown in importance as the costs of higher education approach a level of near-absurdity. Below is a discussion of the current state of the law. The executive summary is that there is no such thing as an "automatic SUNY cap." The courts in some cases will order parents to pay the full cost of private college if that seems reasonable under the circumstances.

In times past, courts would not order parents to pay for a child's college education unless the child demonstrated particular scholastic aptitude. In modern times however, the court is more likely to consider college a necessity and to direct the parents to contribute to the expense.

However, the high costs of private colleges have given rise to the concept of a "SUNY cap" - whereby the court would order parents only to pay for the price of a SUNY school.

Does a judge really have the power to order me to pay for my child to go to college? Isn't that my decision?

When you have your affairs settled by a court, you give up your parental discretion, and the court must substitute its own discretion.

To illustrate, in the absence of a court proceeding, Bill and Melinda Gates would be within their rights to decline to pay for their child's education. In court, however, a judge would substitute his own judgment, and in all likelihood, if Melinda sought a court order requiring Bill to contribute to the college expenses (or vice versa), she would win.

The SUNY Cap - will it apply to my case?

Quoting from the recent matter of Walker v Walker (2015) - "Whether to impose a SUNY cap is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties' means and the children's educational needs."

In this case, the husband was found to have an income of $150,000 per year and was ordered to pay 62% of the child's college expenses, without a cap or any type of limitation. Ouch.

The Court stated:

"Moreover, the Supreme Court properly directed the defendant to pay 62.5% of all add-ons and college expenses. Based upon the evidence . . . the court properly imputed income of $150,000 to the defendant.

"Supreme Court did not err in declining to impose a SUNY cap on the defendant's obligation. . . Whether to impose a SUNY cap is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties' means and the children's educational needs.

"Under the circumstances of this case, where the children have always attended private school, the parties each attended private colleges and graduate school, and the parties have the financial ability to pay, it was not an improvident exercise of discretion for the court to decline to impose a SUNY cap."

Walker v Walker (2015)

In a similar vein, in 2012 a court said (citations omitted):

"Whether to impose a SUNY cap is determined on a case-by-case basis. . .

The record supports the court's direction that defendant pay 40% of the costs of the parties' older child's education at a private college. The child attended an elite public high school, his reasons for preferring the private college over SUNY schools were sound, both parties attended private college and private law school, and both parties have the resources to pay the tuition at the private college where the child is enrolled."

Tishman v Bogatin (2012)

How is the parent's obligation calculated where the child receives financial aid?

The financial aid would be subtracted from the total cost and then the parties' respective obligations would be applied.

This issue presented itself in a recent case, and the court stated:

"Here, the parties . . . stated their mutual intention to contribute to his college expenses up to their pro rata shares of the so-called SUNY cap. However. . . the plaintiff proposed an interpretation that would render the parental contribution obligation largely illusory by first deducting the son's financial aid award, scholarships, grants, and student loans from the SUNY cap amount rather than from the total amount of the son's college expenses. The Supreme Court correctly adopted the defendant's proffered interpretation of the provision to require that all financial aid awarded to the son be applied first to reduce the son's total college costs before reducing the SUNY cap parental obligation. This construction of the provision . . . accorded the language of the subject provision a sensible and practical meaning."

Springer v. Springer (2015) (Nassau County)