Most of my friends know that I advise people on college, so they often ask me what they should be doing with respect to their own kids’ educations. One of the more astute ones asks what I am doing with my own kids in terms of their college plans. Knowing that Jon will ask that periodically gets me to schedule an “eat my own cooking” date with my kids from time to time.

A little more on me: I have 15-year-old twins. They are now high school sophomores. They are very different academically. One is a very ambitious student; the other is, to put it politely, a minimalist when it comes to school. With my ambitious student, we talk about a path that includes graduate school, which means graduating debt-free from undergraduate. Her grandparents encourage her to look at all the top schools, regardless of cost. I encourage her to look at a variety of schools including our in-state publics which have some fantastic honors college programs. I worry that once we do an east coast college tour, in-state public will lose its appeal. We will cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m reasonably optimistic because she knows what we’re willing to pay and she is (or at least appears to be) reasonably savvy about what loans will do to her future.

The conversations with my less-ambitious student are quite different. He wants to go to a big, in-state public school. He knows that it doesn’t take a high GPA to get admitted there. I worry that his goals might change as college gets closer and he sees where friends are headed, but he will have closed off his options by not working harder as a freshman or sophomore. I worry that he focuses too much on just getting over the lowest hurdle and doesn’t leave himself much wiggle room to struggle in a difficult class. I also worry that if I nag him too much about school, he will lose the joy he seems to get from learning. So I’m trying to be creative in getting him to aim at least a little higher.

Last week we sat down together and went through the financial aid section of the in-state school he wants to attend. Soccer season had just ended and he had been recognized by his coach for his GPA and we had recently received his ACT/Aspire results, so we had actual GPA and (projected) test-score numbers to work with in looking at scholarships. Guess what we saw? His GPA was 0.03 lower than what’s needed for the lowest-level academic scholarship. He has a part-time job, so he understood the value of $3,000 a year in free money. I told him that the part of college we would pay was in-state public tuition minus scholarships that are attainable for him. I got two nights of cooperation on homework out of that. That’s out of a possible five. Not what I was hoping for. Tutoring starts next week.

Other things we do: We take all available practice tests. Both took the PSAT this fall, for example. They will take a test prep class as the real tests get closer. My minimalist is getting some tutoring help because that’s a small investment compared with the potential payout of even small scholarships. They also participate in plenty of sports and activities, which we don’t tie to grades, but which also are not so time consuming as to interfere with studying. And they know that these activities are for fun and friendships, not resume-builders. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve cracked the code with my own family; I just wanted to let you know that I’m on the same journey as you.