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Giving the Gift of College Education

by Sarah Hopper

Founder & Principal Advisor, Sound Philanthropy, LLC

A happy multigenerational family playing outside together in autumn

Do kids whose parents pay for college get lower grades? According to Dr. Laura Hamilton’s 2013 study, “More Is More or More Is Less: Parental Financial Investments during College,” the answer is “Yes.” Hamilton found a correlation between increased parental financial aid and decreased GPA. She concluded that financial support in college could be a “moral hazard,” meaning that students are unable to take their studies seriously if they haven’t made their own financial investment in the education and experience.


Hamilton believes that the key issue is that many parents pay for college without setting expectations or linking the money to certain goals around grades, graduation, jobs, etc. I agree—up to a point. Based on my decades of work with high net worth families and their children, it’s my opinion that the motivation and drive to get good grades does not come from linking tuition payments to academic success, but rather in preparing the student to receive the gift of debt-free education.


As parents (or grandparents!), how do we convey the “gift” of paying for college to our kids? 


In The Cycle of the Gift, thought-leading authors Jay Hughes, Susan Massenzio, and Keith Whitaker describe three necessary processes that must accompany a gift in order for it to have the desired effect of enhancing the life of the recipient: communicating intentionality, communicating the spirit of the gift, and preparing the recipient to receive the gift. 


Paying for college—or any education—is a gift because the giver has the opportunity to offer the recipient a way to grow, develop as an individual, and enhance their lives—resulting in a more fulfilling existence, and a positive influence on the world. The opportunities and results are the intention of the gift.


To convey the intentionality of the gift, the giver can:


  • Write a letter. 

  • Celebrate the milestone of getting into college with a special dinner or experience that includes a conversation about the gift, as well as the responsibilities and opportunities that come with this new phase of life.

  • Talk about what it means to be an “adult” member of the family, and express enthusiasm about the perspective and gifts that the young person will bring to the table in this role. 


What is the “spirit” of this gift? 


According to The Cycle of the Gift, the spirit of a gift lies in its power to perpetuate a (positive) gift cycle, wherein the recipient perpetuates the gift to future generations. 

To convey the spirit of the gift, the giver can: 


  • Write a letter explaining the spirit of the gift—the hope that the recipient will “pay it forward.”

  • Make a special, personalized covenant or agreement between the giver and the recipient to honor the spirit of the gift.

  • Keep communicating and celebrate significant milestones with the recipient.

Is the recipient of this gift (the student) prepared to receive it? 


The recipient is prepared to receive the gift if the giver, and other adults and mentors in his/her life, have helped him/her to build resilience and an ability to adapt. This means that through respectful, honest, age-appropriate engagement, the recipient has participated in the growth of the idea of the gift, and discussions about what this means in terms of their own participation and responsibility. In this scenario, it is not necessary to “link” grades to tuition funding, because the motivation to succeed comes from the recipient him/herself, who has been included in the planning—as appropriate—from early on. 


How to build resilience:

  • Start money and values conversations early. 

  • Celebrate achievements, milestones and personal growth along the way—with real rituals and events that are meaningful for your family. 


With the right preparation, intent, and communication, the gift of a college education can be the positive, life-changing gift it is intended to be.

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