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Would you marry to save on tuition?

Some college students are marrying strangers to qualify for lower tuition or more financial aid. Is this wrong?

By MSN Money Partner Jun 6, 2011 10:27AM

This guest post comes from Paula Pant at


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 parents' 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 parents' 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. Post continues after video.

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 education but suffered under an out-of-state tuition increase. So they used 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 prenuptial agreement before the marriage. Still, the few thousand dollars it might cost to get a prenuptial agreement pales in comparison with the savings some students see. The Times said:

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? 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.


More on and MSN Money:

Jun 6, 2011 1:21PM

"...I found this morally questionable -- it reduces marriage to a mere contract -- and I wanted no part in it..."


Well, in its driest sense, marriage IS a legal, binding contract. Finding this to be morally questionable conveys how you consider marriage to be. I feel that this is more of an ethically questionable action!


And yes, I am a married, struggling college student who qualifies for  both a lower tax bracket and bigger financial aid package. The real difference is that we got married because we fell in love!


Considering the state of rising tuition, lowering standards of living, and wage stagnification, I have more than once laughingly suggested to my husband that we divorce, with me having custody of our children, so I can REALLY qualify for help while pursuing my degree. Because right now as a middle-class college student-parent, we as a couple are pinching pennies until the eagle screams! It's a seriously uncomfortable way to keep house, as we constantly are just one paycheck away from complete financial ruin.


It is to my husband's eternal credit that he flatly said "NO!" to this joking suggestion!

Jun 7, 2011 12:07PM

I've been working in financial aid for several years and I think students need to be very cautious about using this loophole, especially if arranging a marriage with a complete stranger. Being married means that you must also file married on your annual tax return if either or both of you work. Whether you file jointly or separately, your "spouse" will be privy to not only your social security number, but your income information as well. If a school or the Department of Education selects you for verification, you must then also provide copies of both your and your spouses tax returns (and depending on school policy, copies of all W-2s). In this age of identity theft, are you really prepared to hand over your tax return/W-2s/SSN to a complete stranger?


Also, as Melissa824 mentioned, you could end up making your situation worse if the person you marry decides to get a part-time or full-time job while going to school (or even if they work during the breaks). Married students must report both incomes on the FAFSA, so if one or both of you work, it is likely that this will seriously impact your Pell grant eligibility. Unfortunately, without any reported children or dependents, the income cutoff for married students to be eligible is relatively low. A lot of people would be better off using their parents' information, especially if they have a large household size.


I'm a little surprised and disappointed that this article didn't really mention any of the consequences of using this loophole, beside the feeling of being morally wrong.


BTW, the age cutoff to be an independent student is not 22, as the article states, but rather 24. The FAFSA for the 2011-2012 year asks if you were born prior to Jan 1, 1988, so you must be 24 by the end of the calendar year.

Jun 6, 2011 8:17PM

This concept doesn't reduce government marriage to be merely a contract, it is simply proof of the already existing fact.


When you can end the contract at any time there is no true commitment, only one of convenience.  Some who obtain government marriages are truly in love, some manage to be continually convenient, and some end when diplomas are handed out.  None of these things will change the fact that if a divorce is easy to obtain, it makes a government marriage a simple contract and no real sign of commitment.


If anything, this is a reason to allow gay marriage: two dudes can get 'married' on paper, live together as roommates, get lower tuition, and have a legally binding drinking buddy.  It's win-win!

Jun 7, 2011 2:07AM
18 years ago I married a close friend so that we could be independent students and reap the benefits of financial aid. I would do it again, and would not deter my daughter from making such an arrangement when she reaches college age. Signing a name on a legal contract has nothing to do with morality...
Perhaps further investigation of how to adjust the education business is required. Here in California we're about to cut $1 billion from the public university budget (1/6th of the current annual budget). Tuition rises steadily each semester while class availability declines. The economy is depressed. Dependent students who want to further their education are going to have to find creative ways in which to accomplish that goal. How is this immoral?
I know several people who are over $60,000 in debt due to school. Their plan? To take classes to defer their loans until they die. Seriously.

Jun 6, 2011 3:04PM
It can also backfire.  If my husband had finished college back when he had a $15,000 a year restaurant job, he could have qualified for Pell grants and all kinds of assistance.  Now that we're married, my income factors in and the only government loans we qualify for are unsubsidized loans, which are higher interest than subsidized and begin accruing throughout college instead of 1 year after graduation.
Jun 6, 2011 4:24PM

Just what we need, more sham 'marriages' and less respect for serious commitments.

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