As a parent you may feel that you have a responsibility to give your child a debt free college education. Having raised two children through to adulthood I think that the best way that you can contribute to your child's education is to help them see that it is their responsibility. Do not wait until they are halfway through high school to have a discussion about college. Start talking to them when they are young and equip them with the tools that they will need to have a successful College Education with minimal debt.
When deciding how much and how to help your kids with college expenses I think it is important to remember that they are the ones that will benefit from their college experience so it is not a bad idea for them to assume most if not all of the responsibility for the expenses. There is a lot of pressure on parents to provide a debt free college education for your children. This is not only impossible for most, but perhaps not even in your child's best interest. I would caution against going into debt yourself for college loans for your kids when you should be saving for your own retirement. It will not help them at all if you get to the age when you need to retire and do not have enough money saved for yourself.
Before they are even in High School you can start preparing them to be able to pay for their own college expenses. Encourage them to find things that they are interested in and pursue them. This does not mean signing your kids up for classes 24/7 from birth to age 18. It means giving them some time to figure out what they want to do and let them focus on these things rather than spreading their time so thinly across multiple activities. Watch your child for signs of what they might be good at and encourage them to try things. At the same time, let your children lead. They must want to do something and do the work themselves so you do not want to be pushing them but rather assisting them.
Developing outside interests will give kids a well rounded experience and perhaps help them choose a career. Besides classes and study, encourage your child to volunteer in areas that they have interest. All these experiences will be rewarding for your child but he or she will also be developing skills that can transfer to scholarships when they begin to apply to colleges. Colleges like to have self starters that know what they want, and are not afraid to reach for it. This quality will be as important as good grades on your child's college application. Make sure to create an environment where your kids are leading the way and not being dragged from activity to activity. I could tell early on that Music was going to be a passion for my daughter. We waited for her to ask for piano lessons and when she started we made it clear that we would not be "making" her practice. If you have to make your child practice, perhaps they have not found something that really interests them. When they do find their passion, you will not be able to stop them from practicing.
Probably the number one way that your children can contribute to their own college fund, is to work hard during their time in Grammar School and High School. This not only includes getting good grades, but also taking their college entrance tests as many times as it takes to get the best score possible. Our daughter took her ACT and SAT several times and on her last attempt scored high enough on the ACT to start getting some scholarship offers from several colleges. Because her ACT was high enough she was invited to participate in Academic Competitions at three schools she applied to. She did well enough at her school of choice to earn a 3/4 tuition scholarship for her performance on an essay and interview. Do not turn down any opportunities because she felt that an experience at one school gave her the confidence to do even better at the school she ended up attending.
In addition to tests, grades, and competitions, have your kids search out scholarships to apply for. Not all scholarships are automatically applied for with their college application. Some require essays or interviews and your child needs to search them out. Besides looking on the websites of the colleges they have interest in, they can call their admissions counselor and ask what is available. Another avenue for scholarships are local scholarships which they can get information on from their High School Guidance Counselor. Another option is employer sponsored Scholarships. If you or your child works for a company, inquire if they offer any scholarships.
Another way that your child can contribute to his own college costs is to get a part time job and save his or her money. I know that I heard from a lot of parents about how their kids were too busy with High School activities to have a job. Having held down a job is an attractive thing to add on a college application. Schools like to see a student with diverse experience and letting them off the hook as far as getting a job, really does them a disservice. Having a part time job can be a great experience for kids to help prepare them for life. It also gives them a little financial independence and helps them mature. There are lessons that they can learn by having a job that they can not learn in school or at home.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area with some college choices in driving distance a great way to save money on college expenses is for your child to commute to and from school and live at home. I am sure your child wants the college experience and all but they can get that even when commuting. It can also save a lot of money and lets face it, the classes and education are the main event, so keep that as a main priority. Our son commuted to and from his University and he seemed to do just fine. He had a lot of friends who lived on campus and I think he got enough college experience hanging out with friends who did live on campus.
If your child does not have a scholarship, do not discount starting at a Community College. Community Colleges are a lot more affordable than Universities and most of the time they can transfer after the first two years. Also keep in mind that there are other scholarships that your child might be able to apply for as a transfer student. They should have a plan and know which school they want to end up graduating from and make sure that their credits will transfer. They should work hard to get high scores and excel in Community College and keep on top of possibilities to take advantage of scholarship offers for transfer students at the Full College, or University of their choice.
Finally let your child accept as much of the financial responsibility for their college education as possible, and see your roll as a helper. If your children have worked hard and have some scholarships and money saved they can apply for government loans for the remainder of their expenses. There are also work study programs that they might qualify for. While it might seem great to provide a debt free college education for your child, it has been our experience that by taking the responsibility away from your kids that you rob them of some of the main motivation to do well. A child who feels more invested in their education will work harder to get the most of their college experience.