Why We’re Not Paying for Our Kids’ College Education

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My husband and I don’t lose sleep worrying about how we’re going to pay for our kids’ college education because we decided long ago that we’re not footing the bill. That always shocks people when it comes up in conversation, and I’m sure it’ll shock some of you, too. But we truly believe we’re doing the best thing for them and for us.

Because, bottom line: If they work hard now, they shouldn’t need our money (or their money) to pay for college.

We first told our kids we weren’t paying for college when they were in elementary school. That may seem awfully early, but we wanted them to understand how important it was for them to do well in school and to plan for their future.

They know I graduated college debt-free, and they also know that that’s largely because I worked hard in school and got several scholarships.

So, we told them, if they worked hard in school, we’d do whatever we could to help them secure the scholarships and grants that they’ll need to pay for school. They’re holding up their end of the bargain by getting good grades, and we’re holding up ours.

Here are some of the things that our daughters are doing to increase their chance of graduating college debt-free:

  • Taking Advanced Placement courses. Our oldest daughter is currently a sophomore, and is on track to take 12 AP courses by the time she graduates. If she does well, that’s enough to knock out a full year of college!
  • Signing up for free test prep courses. Earlier this year, our oldest daughter took advantage of a free ACT prep course that her school offers. She’s now taking a free PSAT prep course, in the hopes that she’ll score high enough to be designated a National Merit Semi-Finalist. Since there are currently $42 million in scholarships available for National Merit Finalists, it’s well worth the effort.
  • Applying for scholarships now. Our girls have been applying for scholarships since they were in middle school. We figure starting early will increase their chance of winning enough money to cover the full cost of school, and if nothing else, all of these early tries are great practice.
  • Working towards their Girl Scout Gold Award. Both of our girls have been in Girl Scouts since kindergarten, and there are lots of scholarships available to girls who earn their Gold Award. They’ve both earned their Bronze and Silver Award. Our oldest daughter is now working on her Gold Award project.
  • Pursuing activities that interest them. Our oldest daughter is on the school’s rock climbing team, and is a member of the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, the art club and the Model UN team. She also writes a monthly column for one of our local newspapers. This summer will be her third year as a Counselor-in-Training at the local Girl Scout camp, and her second at a camp for disadvantaged kids. Our youngest daughter (currently in eighth grade), writes for a different local newspaper. This summer will be her first year as a Counselor-in-Training at the Girl Scout camp and at the camp for disadvantaged kids. These are all activities that they’re passionate about – not things that they’re doing to pad their college applications, and I think that will really come through in their application essays.
  • Planning to go to school in state. Tennessee has a generous lottery scholarship for students who enroll in state. Everyone who meets the GPA and ACT requirements receives it. You can use the scholarship at a community college, public college/university or private college. They stand to receive $11,500 each!

And here’s what my husband and I are doing to increase their chance of graduating college debt-free:

  • Researching scholarship opportunities. A few years back, I started a folder in our household notebook for scholarships. Any time someone finds information about a scholarship that they can apply for now, or later, it goes in this folder. My husband and I go through the graduation announcements in the newspaper in May to see what scholarships and grants are mentioned. If there are any we haven’t heard of, we research them, and if they’re relevant to our kids, they go in the folder.
  • Paying for their testing fees. We’re happy to pay for them to take the ACT and SAT as many times as they’d like to, and to cover the cost of their AP exams. Those 12 exams that our oldest daughter is set to take will cost $1,140, but if it helps her eliminate a year of tuition, room and board, we’re happy to do it.
  • Helping them plan their high school schedules. We sat down with both of our girls in eighth grade and helped them come up with a four-year plan. We steered them towards AP classes that would help them eliminate college requirements, and away from the ones that wouldn’t. We also encouraged them to take courses in areas that interested them, so they’d have an opportunity to build their skills. For our oldest daughter that meant steering her away from AP calculus, since her interests aren’t likely to make that a requirement in college, and towards more art classes, so she’ll have an opportunity to build her portfolio (which could lead to scholarship money).
  • Proofreading/editing their papers. I’ve edited more research papers, newspaper articles and scholarship essays than I care to think about. While there’s absolutely nothing fun about doing it, it’s given me a chance to work with them on their writing skills. Hopefully this will help them stand out from the pack as they apply for scholarships and college.
  • Driving them hither, thither and yon, paying for activities, sewing on Girl Scout badges and doing whatever else they need to stay on track with their plan to graduate college debt-free.

When they get closer to college, we’ll submit their FAFSA as early as possible, proofread their college applications and help them wade through all the various college financial aid packages that they receive. If they don’t receive enough money to cover the full cost of their college education, we’ll be there to help them figure that out too, whether that means helping them find an employer that offers tuition reimbursement or looking for ways to trim their living expenses.

But we won’t be footing the rest of the bill. We want them to have to work hard to make college happen because we think they’ll value the experience more, and because they should work hard for the things that they want in life. Our job is to raise them to be strong, responsible people, not to make their lives easy.

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  1. Erin, we told our kids much the same thing, We told them we would offer assistance with car insurance and books but tuition was there responsibility. If they wanted a school to live at the cost of room and board was there’s also. I have 5 children and they all completed AP courses and were dual enrollment students. This made them 2nd semester sophomores after their high school graduation. All have gone on to college.

    These are some of the things I have learned along the way. AP classes only count for one semester in college. So that year course in high school is only a single semesters credit in college.. Not all colleges both public and private will accept the AP credits for the class that was taken. For example, my youngest had all of his freshmen English classes as a high school senior at a local college. However, at the university he is attending this year his English classes were counted as elective credits, since the University bases all of their English classes on the classics. In addition if the AP course is not a requirement for the degree your daughter is seeking then again the credit may be applied as an elective or not accepted. Each college or university is permitted to accept or decline AP credits as they determine. I am a full supporter of the AP system but it does not provide as much college credit as is presented. All of my kids qualified for the dual enrollment program offered here in Georgia during their senior year. They all attended a 4 year college that is only 20 minutes from our home. They were able to complete their senior year credits and enjoy all the perks of being a senior. Arguably the best part of the dual enrollment is that they get a GREAT understanding of the demands of college classes while still having the support and structure of a home and family to help them. Our youngest graduated last year with a 4.0 in college (he turned 17 two weeks before he started his first class). He received offers from over 100 colleges during his senior year. He is paying for his books but his tuition and board are covered. He intends to become an RA (at his college you must be a junior) in order to get a living stipend. (Many colleges today require students who live outside a prescribed area from the school to live in the dorms for a set number of years.) My sons university requires you to live on campus through your junior year.
    The other part about scholarships is that you must read the fine print. Many scholarships limit where you can attend (liberal arts college vs. research university) and all attach strict GPA’s, or will be rescinded if you consider a different major. Keep applying but consider these points before you invest to much time in something that may corner you in your choices.
    I know its an exciting time for your family. What I always told my kids was succeed while you have the support of family and you will be successful on your own. Good luck!!!

    1. Thank you SO much for this timely article. I too graduated college debt free (my parents helped me with the first 2 years, but tuition in 1984 and 85 was CHEAP and then my employer paid the rest) and have that same expectation from my son. He is a high school junior who attends an International baccalaureate school, is in National Honor Society, is turning in his Boy Scout Eagle application (his project and everything else is complete) this weekend, participates in Model Un, Med Club and because he attends an urban school my alma mater GVSU offers a $3,000 per year scholarship. While he wants to become a doctor and we live in a college town, if push comes to shove he can live at home, go to community college for 2 years, my alma mater GVSU for 2 and Michigan State Med school downtown so his options are limitless. I LOVE the new website…

      1. Sounds like he has lots of great options. And that’s the thing about college. While we always hear so much about how expensive college is nowadays (and it is), I feel like there are all kinds of ways to make it work for kids who are willing to work hard — especially when they have the support of their families.

        P.S. Glad you like the new website. We still have some bugs to work out (like the tiny font when you type in a comment), but after 6.5 months of behind-the-scenes work, we’re getting close 🙂

    2. Yep, there are definitely some pitfalls to watch out for with the AP program. I feel like when I was in high school the AP classes matched up pretty well to courses you could expect to take in college. Now, I don’t feel like that’s always the case. My daughter took an AP World Geography class her freshman year. I don’t know what college would have that as a graduation requirement, but I allowed her to take it, so she’d have her first run at an AP exam when the outcome didn’t really matter. She wanted to sign up for an AP seminar course next year. I nixed that one because I didn’t think it made sense to spend time and money on a class that wasn’t going to eliminate a college requirement. I also discouraged her from taking AP Art History because I think it’ll be a better course in college (and art will likely be one of her majors). I keep steering her towards the AP classes that are really going to help her save money in college. Taking AP Biology in high school makes a lot of sense to me (if you’re not going to be a science major) because that saves you four credit hours in college. But there are a lot of AP courses that aren’t going to do much for you. If you want to graduate college early, high school has to be one big game of strategy 🙂

  2. This post blew me away, wow! I’m seriously impressed, it just makes so much sense and it gives your girls so much more in terms of learning long term planning, working towards goals, acquiring skills that will serve them well their whole life. Well done!

  3. But your grandparents basically paid for a year of your college education! So you received help but are not willing to pay it forward with your own children.

    1. My grandparents helped their grand kids pay for college. I have no idea what we’ll do for our grand kids. But I do know that there’s more than one way to pay something forward. Not everything has to be about spending money. I share what I’ve learned about saving money on this website, and I share what I’ve learned about running a business with the college interns that we hire. Those are both examples of paying it forward, and neither require money.

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