As one financial aid expert has put it, "Colleges don't like to be social workers." What that means for you is that they will compute your daughter's EFC based on a bunch of potentially complicated factors (more on that in a minute) and then give you the bottom line--a total. You and your ex must then duke it out to determine who pays what. In other words, there's nothing that says, "This is Dad's official share, and this is Mom's."
When a college uses the CSS Profile and makes financial aid determinations for children of divorced or legally separated parents, there are a number of complex issues that are evaluated, and each college has its own way of looking at the data. For instance, admission folks will consider whether the custodial parent is remarried and, if so, the stepparent's income will go into the mix. They may look at things like how long you've been divorced, if you have been negligent with child support, what your assets are (some colleges include home equity; others don't; many will "cap" the amount of equity they consider, if your home is worth a lot), whether or not you have other children, etc.
Thus, you can play with an online EFC calculator and you can plug in both your ex-wife's income and your own under "Adjusted Gross Income" to get a very rough sense of what the family total will be. (Be sure to use the "Institutional Methodology" calculation, not the Federal.) However, the real bottom line could end up being substantially different, due to some of the issues named above or other similar ones.
One common scenario is this: if your wife is remarried to a spouse who makes more money that you do, this will raise the EFC. However, if the stepparent won't be contributing to your daughter's college costs, then you and your wife will still have to shoulder that extra burden. The two of you will need to work out a figure for each to pay that you both deem to be fair. Obviously, for many split families--who can't agree on what movies Junior is allowed to see on a Saturday night or on when he is old enough to get a tattoo (I vote for 50 :-))--this can be a hot-button question.
On the other hand, for some parents, it's pretty straightforward--they either divide the payments in half or pro-rate them based on income.
Since your daughter is just a sophomore, she may have no idea yet where she plans to attend college, but if there are already a couple front-runner schools, you should feel free to make phone appointment with financial aid officers to get at least a ballpark sense of where you may stand and how that particular school makes its aid decisions. Ultimately, this may even help your daughter make her decision, too.
Best wishes as you travel through this maze.
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