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I know of a family with a high school senior. They are reviewing financial aid award letters in an attempt to pick the right college for their daughter. And this senior is in the very busy time of scholarship applications. But they’ve recently run into a topic that is causing conflict in their home: financial expectations.

You see, they didn’t understand all the costs that would be associated with their daughter’s desire to attend a 4-year private school, and they didn’t make a clear plan for who would pay what when it was time for her to attend. And now there is some disagreement (and, to be honest, some tears too).

What if this family had set early expectations of both child and adult responsibilities? What exactly are these expectations? A few ideas come to mind:


  • Learn about college costs. This chart shows current costs at Nebraska institutions. Be prepared for the reality of all the costs – including books and personal needs.
  • Start saving – now. Whether it’s cutting out an unnecessary expense (bye, lunch out every day) or shifting your current savings allocations, even $50 a month over the course of five years can yield $3,000. Finally, consider saving in a 529 college savings account – you can earn some extra dollars through this savings investment!
  • Tell your child how much you plan to contribute to their college bill. Will it be a certain percentage? A firm dollar amount? Will you take out a loan? (Yes, these loans are common for many parents of college students.) Then: tell your child your plan, and talk to them about what they need to do to contribute (keep reading for that guidance). If you’re not sure what you will eventually be able to contribute, tell your child that too. College is a family decision because of the financial support most students need to afford it.

But college is your child’s experience – and it’s important for them to have some “skin in the game.” Guide them in a conversation about the important role they play in helping pay for college.

Encourage your student to:

  • Get good grades. A student’s “full-time job” right now is…school. They should be giving their best effort. This will potentially lead to scholarship opportunities down the road! 

It can be tiring for them because they aren’t earning money like a parent does in a job, so consider celebrating their hard work along the way. In our house, we also incentivize good grades (A’s, B’s, and C’s) quarterly with a night out at a restaurant or a fun family activity – last quarter the whole family went to a trampoline park!

  • Get involved in activities. This can be athletics, clubs, music, theatre, and participating in or volunteering with organizations outside of school. This activity involvement will set them up for future scholarship opportunities!
  • Save a portion of gift funds or earnings. Just because grandparents gave a $50 birthday gift doesn’t mean your child should blow it all on a new clothing item they want. Set up an agreement for how much of the funds that come into your child’s life are allowed to be spent, and how much should be saved. Consider a percentage.

I sincerely hope these strategies will set your family up for success – and less conflict – when it’s time to make financial college decisions. Often times, simply setting expectations can have a compounding impact on the situation. Good luck!