Eight Strategies for Preparing Your Kids Early for an Inexpensive College Education (or Other Options)

It’s a worry that pops into the mind of most parents not too long after their child is born. College. How on earth are we going to pay for a great education for our child?

Prices at top-tier schools like MIT have seen annual tuition jump to over $50,000 a year, with no end in sight to the rapid climb. Even quality state universities have seen tuition rise to the $10,000 per year mark.

That’s an incredible expense facing students as they approach college age. Four years at a state university to earn a bachelor’s degree means a $40,000 expense just for tuition – that doesn’t include room and board or textbooks or other supplies. What if they want to go to a top-tier school? What about graduate school? The costs easily explode into the six figures and it’s just going to get more and more painful.

The natural response is to take on the problem from a purely financial angle. It makes a lot of sense to start saving for college in a 529 plan, getting good grades, have your child apply for scholarships, and so on. Those methods directly reduce the cost of a college education.

However, one major obstacle to overcome is mindset. If you and your child are attached to the belief that the only way to success after high school is four years at a prestigious university and that everything needs to be geared toward acceptance there, you’re creating a trap of your own making.

The approach I’m suggesting here is a little different. I believe that the “four years at a great school” path isn’t right for everyone. Even more than that, I believe that if you invest the time in preparing your child for their life after high school, they’ll often find the path that makes the most sense for them – and there’s a good chance it won’t even involve a six-figure college bill.

In other words, mindset and preparation are just as important as savings. Rather than focusing on how to save up for that huge college bill, here are eight strategies we’re using with our own children to get them ready for whatever path life might hold for them after high school.

Make It Fun

This is the type of thing that you might find at the end of most lists, but I’m putting it first because it’s so fundamental. Children will dig deep into almost anything if they find it fun, and it’s not too hard to make almost anything fun.

Homework is a great example of this. If you just tell a child to do their homework, they might do it, but they’ll view it as misery. Instead, ask them about what they’re learning. Toss them questions so that they can answer them and show off a bit.

There are two key secrets I’ve figured out for making almost everything you do with your children fun.

Respect

This doesn’t mean that you should be your child’s best pal. What it does mean is turning the tables for a moment and asking yourself how you would like to be treated. No one – child or adult – responds well to just having orders thrown at them.

Here’s a great example from my own childhood. I always found it was a lot more enjoyable to do homework if one of my parents (or one of my older brothers) was at the table doing work at the same time. When I was by myself, I always felt like I was being forced to do something no one else wanted to do. When someone else was there, it felt like camaraderie, something we were doing together.

Another example came from conversations. Some adults talked down to me – and I generally didn’t think too much of them. I would follow orders, but they never got me engaged in anything. The adults who talked to me as an equal (or something close to it) almost always engaged me.

There are times when discipline is called for, but there’s no reason why the parent-child relationship can’t involve mutual respect. Most interactions between parent and child can afford a healthy dose of this type of respect.

Get Excited Yourself

Enthusiasm is incredibly important. When you’re enthusiastic, you trigger at least a little enthusiasm in the people around you. When you share that enthusiasm directly with people, it’s surprisingly easy to pull them in.

For all of the things I list below, don’t clinically instruct your child to do these things. Get excited about them yourself and participate in them side by side with your child. When the process calls for independence, do something independent yourself and compare the results.

The remaining steps here all boil down to self-improvement. If you include self-improvement in your own life with enthusiasm, it will rub off. If you’re candid with your own self-improvement and your own experiences – particularly positive ones – you’ll reel them in.

It works almost every time with me, whether dealing with young children or teenagers. Openness, enthusiasm, and respect are the keys.

Take on Entrepreneurial Projects

Entrepreneurship is one of the best lessons you can teach your children.

It teaches a process of self-improvement. Creating a plan to fulfill a market need, executing that plan, and then figuring out what went right and what went wrong to fuel your next plan is a great process for almost anything you do in life and it’s the centerpiece of entrepreneurship.

It teaches that independence can earn money. You don’t have to have an employer to earn an income. You can build it yourself. (If you don’t believe it’s true, The Simple Dollar is living proof of that.)

It teaches the value of hard work. Entrepreneurship eats up a lot of mental and physical effort, but that effort can produce results that can be measured both in dollars and cents and also in pride in what you’ve built.

How does this relate to college? College is about self-improvement and hard work. However, entrepreneurship can show them the genuine value of their education as well as other paths to follow that they might not have considered.

Help Them Launch Microbusinesses

There are many, many small businesses your child can launch. They can start a video channel on Youtube. They can open a lemonade stand. They can start a lawn care service. They can start a snow removal service. They can start a pet walking service or a babysitting service. They can design websites. These ideas just scratch the surface of what’s possible.

What’s really important, though, is that they follow through the whole process. That means starting with a plan, which includes figuring out where there’s a demand and how they’ll meet that demand. That means following that plan with execution, and then following the execution with figuring out what went right and what went wrong.

Most of all, it teaches them that costs really matter. It doesn’t take many entrepreneurial experiences to learn that it’s often far better to launch a smaller business with a much smaller cost. “Bang for the buck” is a huge part of success in business and in life – and prohibitive up-front expenses are usually a bad thing. You’re better off finding another path.

Learn from Success and Failure

Not every entrepreneurial adventure will be successful. It’s absolutely vital to spend some time figuring out what went wrong and what can be improved for the future.

Entrepreneurship is an iterative process. We use iterative processes all the time in life as we try the same task a slightly different way to see how we can do it better than before. The earlier your children master this in their own life, the better.

Reward Effort and Study, Not Results

It’s often tempting for parents to do things like offer financial rewards for great grades.

On one level, this makes a great deal of sense. You’re rewarding them for producing great results.

However, it misses on a few levels. For starters, it rewards them regardless of how they got there. If they have a natural talent, an “A” in school might come very easy for them. They also might earn it through academic dishonesty or other means that don’t involve putting in the work to master the material.

Instead of rewarding the results, we should focus on the process. What does a person do that translates into mastery of the material and good grades?

Observe, Compliment, and Reward Hard Work Above All Else

Since we know that studying and effort will inevitably produce better grades, it’s the process that really matters, not the results. If a child has good study habits and puts in real effort, they will get better grades.

Thus, if you want to offer compliments and rewards, compliment and reward that hard work that they’re putting in. Don’t obsess over the grades except as feedback on what and how they’re studying. The process matters.

In the end, it’s that process of hard work and studying that they’ll use again and again in life. Knowing how to put in the work to acquire knowledge is a skill that people use throughout life.

Remember That Grades and Knowledge Are the Inevitable Result of Effort and Are Rewards Unto Themselves

A good grade should be a reward itself. It feels good to see that “A” on the report card – it doesn’t need a supplemental reward.

Thus, it makes sense to let the grades and the knowledge be a big reward all by themselves. They show your child that the hard work and good preparation really does pay off.

Live Near a Good School

Living near a good school serves three purposes.

One, it gives you a chance to explore that college on a frequent basis, demystifying college for your children and making it all much clearer through experience.

Two, it gives opportunities to earn credits through that college through community options, as many colleges offer opportunities for local high schools to earn credit.

Three, it can provide very inexpensive housing should your child choose to go there.

The first part is the important one here. Let’s take a look.

Expose Your Child to That College Through On-Campus Events

Many children view college as some kind of special experience that’s somehow distinct from everything they’ve done before. While that is true, it’s also mostly a continuation of their earlier experiences, as they’re taking classes and studying, much like before. The only difference is that it’s expensive.

Take advantage of the campus near you to show your children what it’s actually all about. Go to on-campus events with them. Tour the campus in detail with them. If possible, you can even have them check out a lecture or even take a class there.

Demystify college for them so that they know what it actually is and what it can do for them.

Relate That College to Other Post-Secondary Options

The local college isn’t their only option after graduating from high school. Not only are there countless other colleges, there are also options such as trade schools, the military, and so on.

Take that experience of getting to know the local school and use that as a basis for comparing other options. What will those other experiences get for you? If you have a chance, dig deeper into those experiences with your child so that they’ll know more about what it’s like and what they can get out of it.

Explore an Enormous Array of Career Options

There are an infinite number of career options out there, and most people won’t stick to just one career throughout their life. Having a sense of what’s needed for many different options can help your children figure out what they really want to do after they graduate so that, if they do choose college, they get the most bang out of their buck.

Connect Lots of Careers to Day-to-Day Life

Often, children have a limited view of career options. The truth is that almost every experience they have and almost every item they see or touch was built and delivered by a medley of people in different careers.

Dig into how everything is made and what careers it leads to. How are things produced? How are they delivered to you? How do things work and who makes them work?

Your child’s personal interests will bubble through as you do this, so chase those interests. Dig into all of the career paths that tie into their areas of interest – there will be a lot of them and not all of them will have anything to do with college.

Dig Into Specifics

If your child is showing an interest, look into what kind of training needs to happen to get into that field. What does the person have to study? Do they go to college? Trade school? Is it a field where independent learning and effort gets your foot in the door or is it a field where a degree is your ticket of entry? What kind of advancement is available?

The more you know about a field, the better the decisions your child can make about that field. This is a process you can start at a very young age – I already have these conversations with my eight year old. I want this all to seem incredibly natural to him when he’s old enough to start making those decisions in his own life.

Look at Success Stories

If we admire the results, shouldn’t we look at the process that produced those results?

There are people in all walks of life – famous and not-so-famous – who have done great things with their life. Perhaps they were steady in their field while becoming a pillar of their community. Maybe they achieved stardom in some fashion, rising to the top.

What made them tick?

Focus on Admired People and Real-Life Role Models

Once your child has identified a number of fields of interest to them – it doesn’t have to be one or two or even ten – start looking for people who have succeeded in those fields. What did those people do to get there? What education did they have? What early steps did they take?

At the same time, take a look at the path of people that you and your child personally admire, both in terms of well-known people and people who are a key part of your community. What education did they have? What early steps did they take in life?

When you start seeing some common elements, then you’ll know that you’re figuring out some useful ideas to follow.

Don’t Try to Cherry-Pick Paths to Success

Often, people will be pre-disposed to finding certain paths to success and will discard examples that don’t match that path. Don’t do that.

Some fields lend themselves well to entrepreneurship and independent study. Others rely on a formal education. Still others tend to breed success from hustle and building personal networks.

Look at the paths of many successful people and evaluate all of their paths. It might point in a surprising direction, but go with it.

Strongly Encourage Independent Learning

The studying skill is a valuable one. Knowing how to absorb and make use of a body of knowledge in a limited amount of time is one you’ll draw on again and again in life.

However, there’s more to it than just that. A natural curiosity is also vital, and knowing how to connect that studying skill to natural curiosity will make your child a force to be reckoned with no matter what they choose to do.

Channel Their Natural Interests

Throughout these steps, your child’s natural interests will become obvious. Channel those interests by asking them deep questions about those interests, ones that will require them to dig in deep. Ask how things are made. Ask how strategies evolved and why some are better than others.

You want to encourage them to take their interests deeper and deeper, and the best way to do that is to ask deep questions and show them how to find answers to them. The internet is one tool, but it’s not the only tool.

Sometimes, they won’t bite on these things, but sometimes they will, and when they surge forward with enthusiasm, you’ll know you’ve not only hit upon a deep interest, they’re also building good thinking skills.

Be an Independent Learner Yourself

This isn’t just a process for your children, it’s a process for you. Whenever something interests you, chase it – and be open with it at home. Talk about what intrigues you and encourage everyone in your family to talk about what intrigues them.

Sure, you might not be interested in what they’re passionate about and they might not be excited about your passions, but what matters is that you’re both interested in something and you’re both following up on that.

Positive action like that is inspirational and it encourages everyone around you to follow suit, particularly those in your family.

Provide Lots of Independent Experiences

The years after high school graduation are about independence and finding your own balance. Sometimes, children are thrust into that situation without having experienced independence before and that, combined with the challenges and pressures of college, can create a disaster. I witnessed a lot of my friends struggle with a mix of independence and challenge during the first years of college and more than a few bright ones dropped out.

The best way to prepare for this, regardless of the specific path chosen, is to provide lots of independence early on.

Value Self-Reliance Above All Else

The goal of independence is to make your child self-reliant. They need to have the internal confidence to know that they can handle lots of different situations and make something successful out of them on their own without your help (or anyone’s help).

Self-reliance, coupled with the natural tendency for independence that older children have, will give them what they need to forge their own path. As they near the age for making major career decisions, your role should be to step back and provide input and information for them to use, not to micromanage their choices. If you’ve built self-reliance along the way, that’s what will happen.

Encourage Self-Reliant Experiences

Every time your child wants to engage in an independent project or program, encourage it. Get your child into camps, extracurricular projects, independent entrepreneurial activities, and other things where they step out from under your shadow and do things on their own. Do it early and do it often. Your role should be to provide a safe base if they need it, not to interfere because you emotionally need to.

However, pushing your child into these things often won’t teach valuable lessons, nor will hovering over them as they do it. Be encouraging, but when they take flight, step back and let them find their own way, even if they flounder a bit. The successes they have without your direct help will be invaluable.

Final Thoughts

The goal of all of these steps is to produce a self-reliant high school graduate who knows how college works and how it’s just one option among many before them. They might not know what they want to do, but they have a sense of how to make almost any of those options happen. They have the ability to teach themselves what they need to know and aren’t afraid to take on big projects without your help.

A high school graduate with those skills has made the world their oyster. They might end up going to college (or they might not), but they’ll value the experience differently and they’ll desire ways to make it as inexpensive as possible.

Saving for college makes a huge difference, of course, but every dime you save becomes much more valuable if you’re using it on a child with these skills. Without these skills, college might not have the return on investment that you hope.

Your big investment here isn’t money, it’s time and effort. It takes time and effort and attention to pass along these lessons to your child. Those lessons are far more valuable than more money in a college savings account.

Teach your children well.

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