Some Advice for Parents of College Students: It’s About Incentives

I should have seen this coming, but didn’t: parents of college students are probably even more interested in Crush College than the students themselves.

Now that you’re done rolling your eyes because I didn’t see this coming, let’s move on. A lot of these parents have been pretty chatty (thanks for the input and feedback, folks) and many of them asked me the same question: “I think Crush College could really help my student graduate on time [implied: and save me tens of thousands of dollars] but I don’t think they’re motivated to do so. Should I even bother giving them the book?” (Remember: 60% of American college grads don’t graduate on time, so the majority of parents have to deal with this.)

So I’d thought about it and looked back on some anecdotal evidence from my own college experience, and then started giving them some advice that seemed to resonate. Now I want to share it with you. First thing’s first: if a student’s not interested in excelling, no book or method (mine or otherwise) on how to excel is going to help–until they realize why excelling is so important to their own lives, they won’t go through the difficult (or perceived as difficult) effort to transform.

Worse, there are clear reasons why students may want to stick around college that have to be overcome. So let’s talk about what those are, and then what we can do about them to motivate a student to honestly pursue on-time graduation.

Students reading for this: be ready for a big ol’ helping of humble pie. If the below doesn’t fit you, don’t sweat it. For if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably of the more motivated variety.

Why a student might want to graduate late:

The answer is twofold, and we know both in our hearts:

1) The “post-recession” real world is still a really scary place. Unemployment in the US is still between 7 and 8%, and much higher among young people.


The great disillusionment of the employment power of the non-technical college degree is only beginning to set in, but students can feel it in their guts–as senior year approaches, many say to themselves, “I have no idea what kind of job I can get with this degree.” Generally, a lot of students are looking ahead to a post-graduation life of potential unemployment or under-employment–which means unfulfillment, shame, and frustration.


While many have the option to live with parents as they try to figure out a career situation that works for them, many don’t want to. Some of it is social pressure (it’s much more accepted to be in college than to be graduated and in a parent’s basement) and some of it is daily enjoyment (it’s more fun to live in a dorm than one’s parents’ house).

If this is a student’s outlook, the thought of graduating is probably terrifying. Even if only subconsciously, there will often be a strong desire to cling to the safety (and fun) of college. Which leads us to #2…

1) College is, for many, the last bastion of a carefree childhood before they have to shoulder responsibility for themselves.

I’m not yet old enough to have forgotten college, and I remember being consistently pretty irresponsible. Or, at least, unresponsible. What I needed to do was laid out for me by teachers. Dining halls (though I didn’t use them) meant I never had to cook, if I didn’t want to–I just had to show up and grab plates. If I missed a class, I wasn’t fired from college the way one would be from a job. My goofy, similarly irresponsible 19-year-old friends were always just a door away.

In short, it was a bit of a 24/7 BYOB Disney World kind of situation.


In my defense, I was looking forward to being a graduated adult and do happen to prefer it massively. Certainly not everyone thinks they’re going to. There’s very much a tendency to cling to living with one’s college buddies, to being able to stay up until 3am on a Wednesday, to have zero responsibility to anything but your classes, and to honestly not have that much work to do. Again, noting the exceptions, this is the case for a whole lot of folks: college seems like it’s going to be the best times of their lives, and they actively want to stretch it out as long as possible.

There’s a wisdom gap that we absolutely have to acknowledge:

So a lot of kids are going to want to stick around in college, even though it’s going to burn them (or at least the First National Bank of Mom & Dad… we’ll get back to this point) in the long-run.

As a recently-recovered college student, I want to say this about your college student: unless they’ve been running the family farm for the past 5 years, they have no idea at all what the real world is like or what “responsibility” means. I mean none. 

#Collegelife is a terrifying tag

#Collegelife is a terrifying tag

College students lack the wisdom of the long-employed adult. Had they such wisdom, they’d study consistently, get regular sleep, drink moderately, and be acutely aware of the gargantuan cost of extra semesters of school (as well as actually care). But they have it not, so they do these not.

So, forget the honor roll stickers still stuck to your bumper for a minute and have a gut-check and think about the above until you believe it.

Done? Good.

Remember the power of external incentives: 

Even the most internally motivated of us are also hugely motivated by external incentives. (See my “Parable to Meeting Your Goals” for more thoughts on the concept.) For me, one of the biggest ones hanging over my head was student loans.

When I decided I was going for my Masters, I did a bit of mucking about and learned that if I did it in a 5th year, I’d lose all of my grants, get a worse college loan rate, and start work a year later. That one year was worth well over $100k (with some salary assumptions).

Want external motivation? Putting $100k on the table was enough for me to decide to hammer down, take 6 classes where I needed to, and skip the kegerators that needed skipping to succeed. If that prize (or pending cost, depending on how you look at it) wasn’t there, I may well have stuck around–or at least not been quite as hellbent.

To that end, one of the best things I’ve ever heard a parent say to their college student was this:

“Honey, you can study anything you want. I’ll pay for 4 years of college. After that, you’re on your own.” This included an invitation to stay at the parents’ house after graduation, but only if paying rent.

The student gulped visibly. Suddenly, he had to think for the first time of the consequences of major life decisions–and thus really accept responsibility for himself. He graduated on time–but further, his grades improved and he took on a minor degree in a technical field to improve his employability (rather than use the rough job market as a self-fulfilling prophecy and excuse for unemployment).

One of the most powerful external motivators in the world is money. This is why programs like StickK work so well, and why weight loss coaches get their clients to put money on the line for their target.

“But my student should be internally motivated to succeed!” I hear you say. I refer you to the previous section, and I also put the question to you: have you ever wanted to lose weight, quit smoking, or overcome some other challenge, but immediately succeeded? Quit idealizing your student. Instead, help them.

So what I want you to do is help your student realize it’s going to be costly for them to graduate late. Luckily, you don’t need to come up with some contrived system of carrots and sticks: it already exists. College is expensive, and you simply need to put that expense square on their shoulders.

So: tell your student they’re on their own after 4 years (if you’re currently helping them pay for college). Whoever is covering their grants or scholarships (if any) will be telling them the same, and you need to set the tough expectation that you’re not going to pay for extended vacation from real life. With all the reasons (however lousy) to hang around college further, this is your best way to counter-motivate your student and get them out the door on time. This makes them more employable, less indebted, and protects your own financial solvency.

But cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. How can we make this financial incentive maximally motivating and have lasting power beyond a week?

You need to make it very, very tangible:

Someone once said that “student loans are good debt,” and in the same way we latched onto bread and noodles being the big chunk of the food pyramid, this comfortable lie has made student loans feel like they’re not real. “It’s low interest!” What’s worse: you don’t have to start paying back until you’re out of school… however long that may be.

If we’re going to incentivize our students with the reality of finances, it needs to feel as real as it is. We can do this with a little bit of math. I suggest the following:

1) Help your kids calculate what their monthly student loan payments will look like after 4 years. Then repeat for 5 years, assuming they won’t get any grants or money from mom and dad. It goes up by a lot!

2) Similarly, calculate the total they’ll pay over the next 20 years between 4 years and 5 years (or more). Because of compounding interest, it’ll actually go up by a whole lot. For both #1 and #2, Google is your friend (a fine student loan payment calculator is here, too:

3) Add, of course, lost income. If they’re eye-rolling skeptical about getting a job, at least add the tab of a minimum wage job.

The numbers are going to be big. The measure of your success is directly proportional to how wide your student’s eyes get. Make the financial pain of a 5th+ year very, very real in their gut. This memory should be highly motivating in driving on-time graduation.

The only way out is through:

The job market does suck, yes. Right now, neither you nor I can change that. But students will be more successful in their finances and career–without exception–if they graduate on time. There’s no rational sense in taking longer to graduate, despite the temptation to displace the challenge they’ll face upon graduation.

So: it’s a bit of tough love, but it is very powerful tough love that will prime your student for success. It’s scary to go face the job market and the grownup world, but (as you already know) it’s manageable, and once your student is on their own feet, they will be more proud and prosperous for it. Have the conviction and integrity not to enable them to displace going forward.

Then, make it easier!

The final, secret reason students don’t graduate on time is they believe it’s hard. And it often is, but not because your kids aren’t smart. They have not been taught by their primary education how to study well, or how to use their time well–college is a big departure from the structure of high school, and many students are unprepared for it.

For more on this, see my earlier post, “Why 60% of College Students Don’t Graduate in 4 years.”

But once you have established with your student the joint conviction to graduate on time, help them succeed! Motivation is one half, the tools to actually win are the other.

And that, my friends (you knew the plug was coming) is where How to Crush College takes over, by teaching the principles, tools, and methods to easily take control of academics (and the rest of college life) and accomplish way more than what your student ever believed was possible–without sacrificing all the fun and friends that make college truly special.

It’s available on Amazon here in Kindle and paperback, and is a great followup to the tough conversation about finances from above.

Go help your kid Crush College! Would love to get more thoughts an questions in the comments section, below.

About efogg

CEO of MidTide Media Curator and Considerate at Blogger at
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2 Responses to Some Advice for Parents of College Students: It’s About Incentives

  1. jamie says:

    Nice Eric! Well thought out and well said. Another idea for your book is to approach high school/prep school guidance offices. They are trying desperately every day to prove their worth to both administrations controlling their budgets, and the parents of students. Not to mention, it’s a smaller market channel to potentially sell the same number of books. My point is, every guidance office worth its salt, should be buying 200 copies to GIVE to each and every high school senior, perhaps via the parents? Just another thought for increased unit volume! Cheers! JMN

  2. Pingback: How we Pay for College May be Changing–But Don’t Hold your Breath | The Crush College Blog

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