New Jersey high school counselor Doris Stevens motivated a student to get into college, even when the student didn't think her family could afford it.

My student Alicia* was a great writer with good grades. She didn’t put forth much effort in school, though. She was so naturally smart that it was never necessary for her.

Alicia came from a solidly middle-class family. Her older brother attended a military academy, so his college education was free. Alicia assumed her family couldn’t afford to put her through school after she overheard her parents complaining about their bills and worrying that the company her father worked for was on the verge of collapse.

As a result of never having to work hard for good grades and believing that she couldn’t afford to attend a four-year college, Alicia’s motivation to apply for college was low. She instead made a plan to enroll in a local community college and eventually transfer to a nearby state university. But she wasn’t excited about this college track and, consequently, wasn’t eager to apply to or even think about college.

Then I spoke privately to Alicia’s parents, and what I learned blew me away: They had set aside close to $30,000 for her college education, but hadn’t told her for fear she wouldn’t work as hard to achieve financial rewards on her own. They asked me not to disclose this information to Alicia, and I honored their request.  

I took it upon myself to encourage Alicia to expand her horizons to include four-year universities, explaining there’d be financial aid available for her. Because her brother’s process had been so different, Alicia was unaware that she could get help paying for her education from outside institutions. I also pushed her to apply for scholarships, even letting her know about local business-funded scholarships that didn’t require essays. Once she realized there were feasible options for going to a four-year college, she starting taking initiative. All she needed was some clarity on how hard work could pay off.

Alicia was offered a full scholarship to a public college far from home, but she declined it because the school didn’t have a particularly strong program in journalism, which was the path she was hoping to follow. Instead, she combined several other scholarships and a small Perkins loan to cover the cost of attending a local state university with an excellent communications department. The campus was close enough to home that she decided to commute to classes, thereby saving money on room and board. She also took on several internships — paid and unpaid, varying by semester — and a paying on-campus job as an administrative assistant. She even worked as a barista on nights and weekends. Despite burning the candle at both ends, her college grades were great. She found it easy to work hard academically because school felt purposeful to her for the first time.

It wasn’t until Alicia graduated from college — with honors — that her parents revealed they’d been able to fund her education. As her graduation present, they paid off her student loan, something I learned when she wrote me a heartfelt letter thanking me for keeping their secret, because it did make her work harder than she ever would have.

*Alicia’s name has been changed for this article.