Have them take advanced classes
Some high schools offer advanced placement (AP) classes for subjects like English, science, math, and languages. After taking an AP class, your child will sit for an AP exam.
If they score well, usually a 4 out of 5 or higher, the university they apply to may count that class as college credit. (Even scores of 3 sometimes rate general credits—i.e., not toward their major—at certain schools.) This can save you thousands of dollars in tuition and may even let your child graduate early.
Doing well in AP classes also improves your child's chances of admittance to a university that really wants them—and could put up scholarship money to prove it—because it shows they're willing to challenge themselves.
Some high schools offer International Baccalaureate® (IB) classes, which are similar to AP classes. Universities may also offer your child college credit (or let them skip basic classes) if they score well enough on the IB exam.
While students taking honors classes won't directly earn college credit, they may see another benefit to taking harder classes.
"A perfect GPA without any challenging courses,” Pearson says, “won't look as good as a not-so-perfect GPA with challenging courses like AP and honors."
Snag community college credits
To save money, if your child's school has few AP options, they should consider taking community college classes whose credits will transfer to a four-year university. (One such credit costs just $135 on average, versus $325 at four-year public colleges [for in-state students] and $1,039 at a four-year private school.6)
This strategy works best if your child plans to attend a public school (particularly in state), since many out-of-state schools (and virtually all private schools) won't accept transfer credits from another state's community colleges.
Your child should take these classes during the summer (to avoid interfering with their regular schoolwork) or after high school (to get credit for prerequisites they'll need at a four-year school).
Also, some high schools have relationships with local community colleges that offer credit for certain high school classes—essentially enabling you to prepay some college bills at relatively low costs.
Start applying for scholarships
You might think scholarships are limited to high school seniors. But plenty allow applications from younger students. (The Federal Student Aid website Opens in new window has more information.) Be sure to research scholarships that fit your child's interests—but don't overlook those that seem unrelated at first glance.
"There are tons of scholarships for those in lower grades, but ideally students should begin no later than junior year in high school," Pearson says. Once senior year arrives, add scholarships from local organizations into the mix; those often have fewer applicants, making them easier to get.
If your child struggles to find time for scholarship work, remind them of how it will help their future self. If your child has a job, compare the scholarship amount to how many hours they'd have to work to earn that same sum. For example, if they earn $10 an hour babysitting, explain how a $300 scholarship is worth 30 hours of work. Putting it in context can motivate your child to put in the effort.
Mind the gap year
While it's common outside the U.S., more and more American students (particularly given COVID-19 uncertainty) are taking "gap" years between high school and college. This lets them gain work experience, learn more about their interests, and save money for college.
As your teen gets older, talk to them about the possibility. Make clear that it's OK—and could even be beneficial—if they don't go to college right after high school. (They can still apply during their senior year but defer enrollment for a year.)
Start early to minimize loans
No matter how old your kids are, you can control how much they'll have to borrow for school in the future. For example, try to limit them to federal loans, which usually have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than private loans. If your child loses their job, payments on federal loans are also easier to defer.
To illustrate how debt can weigh down your child's future, use a student loan simulator Opens in new window. Giving them a concrete idea of life with student loans can prevent them from borrowing $70,000 to end up in a job that pays $35,000.