Creative ways to help with college today

Before you write a check or run out to buy a dorm fridge, think about these different ways to help the student in your life.

It used to be that well-intentioned parents, grandparents and other loved ones would send students off to college with a trunk full of XL twin sheets and towels, a desk lamp and a dorm fridge. But today (and frankly always) one size doesn’t fit all. 

Once those items are checked off the list, it can be hard to know how to help. Moreover, many students prefer to travel light to campus and figure out what they need when they get there. 

Gifting money will always be a go-to. Yet, there are more ways to make an impact than cutting an 18-year-old a check.

What college costs today

Many TIAA plan participants who work at colleges and universities know the cost of college first-hand, but still feel sticker shock when a friend or family member is the student.


2020-211 Tuition, fees, room and board

2020-21 Tuition, fees, room and board

Source: College Boards "Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020"
1 With estimated room and board

Taking on tuition costs

While you may have worked for four years to pay your own way through college, part-time jobs are less likely to put a big dent in the bill for your grandchild’s tuition. The average tuition and housing expense for attending an in-state college was $22,180 in 2020-21, according to The College Board. For a student enrolled in a private school or out-of-state public school, the cost can be thousands of dollars more per year. 

You can give up to $15,000 a year to any individual before triggering gift taxes (married couples can give $30,000). But be aware that giving money directly to your grandchild or child could also have financial aid implications; that money will then be considered an asset they could contribute toward college expenses, potentially reducing how much aid they are eligible to receive. 

Another option: You can also send money directly to the college to cover tuition costs. Thanks to an exemption, that money won’t count against the $15,000 annual financial gift limit nor will it be considered as an asset of your grandchildren for financial aid considerations. 

Think beyond books

Before you buy any school or dorm supplies, be sure the student needs them. Many college-bound kids may already have a computer or plan to rent textbooks instead of buying them. 

“Remember things were different when you or your children attended school,” says Mark Schrader, Financial Planning Strategist at TIAA. “Sit down and have a conversation with the student. You want to spend money on something useful and appreciated.” 

Another option: If the student’s basic needs are covered, consider offering to pay for the fees, dues and expenses for any intramural sports or other extracurricular activities or clubs they want to join. 

Way to go

The idea of presenting a car decorated with a giant bow may seem exciting but, practically speaking, may not be wise. Many students don’t need a car to get around—and sometimes undergraduates may not be allowed to bring them on campus. Plus, keeping up with the expenses of owning a car (gas, maintenance, insurance) can be a distraction. 

Another option: Gift-givers often focus on the initial send-off, but for a student attending school far away, consider paying for a plane ticket to fly them home for the holidays. On a smaller scale, a gift card to a ride-share service, such as Uber or Lyft, can come in handy when a car ride is needed. 

Rethinking the care package

Care packages from home will always be a treat. And while the food programs at many colleges rate higher than some restaurants, it’s always nice to break out of the norm. Even if you aren’t the care-package-packing type, there are creative solutions. 

Another option: A subscription to a snack-box service will let the student know you’re thinking of them. You can gift a one-time shipment or pay for a three-month, six-month or one-year subscription. And the varieties are endless. Search “snack box subscription” online to find services that focus on snacks from around the world, snacks for special diets, energy-boosting snacks and more. 

Three more A+ ideas

  • Commit to helping with college costs after graduation. Many young people struggle with student loan debt as they’re trying to start their lives. If you’re able to, consider helping them pay those bills to lessen the burden.
  • Looking to help a child who’s not yet college-aged? For elementary- or middle-school graduates, offer to fund a summer camp. Academic and enrichment camps, including programs devoted to arts, music and technology, can be an investment in their future college dreams.
  • Remember, your time can amount to money, too. Think about whether you can help the student apply for scholarships or connect them with people in your network who can discuss career options with them or provide an internship. “As a grandparent, you’ve experienced a lot in your life,” says Shelly Eweka, Senior Director, Financial Planning Strategy at TIAA. “And parents are often busy with work and their time is limited. You can help your grandchildren by making connections and helping them explore areas of interest for their future.” 

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