Overview: Is college the best option for your teen? Evaluate these indicators in order to make a fully-informed decision.
We outright told our fourth kid he was definitely NOT going to college after high school graduation. He basically didn’t have a choice in the matter; he would be staying home, at least for a while.
Horrible parenting? No. We were seeing signs that he needed more time to mature before he could be successful. Time management was sketchy at best; he got himself to his job OK, but schoolwork was always done last-minute. He wasn’t making an effort to research colleges, to find out about scholarships, to fill out applications. Our occasional nudges were met with sullen defensiveness.
We’d been down this path before (see Part 1 here: Should Your Teen Go to College?), and we weren’t going to make the same mistakes as last time. We were already in debt for two years of an unfinished college degree from the previous situation, and we could see that the figurative ROI on this fourth kid going to college didn’t look too good either, LOL.
There were also other indicators that college would not be the best option for him, at least not right away. These might be a bit more subtle than the ones I discussed in Part 1, but they are still worth considering. Let’s jump right in.
More indicators to answer “is college the best option?” for your teen
4) Does the teen have a career direction or course of study they want to pursue?
This goes both ways. First, if they don’t know what major they want to study, then I suggest waiting for college until they narrow that down. I personally don’t see a point in “getting general education credits out of the way” at a college while the kid figures out what their major will be, because if/when they do decide what to study, that major may not be offered by the college they are already at. And they may have missed some prerequisites along the way. Then you also have the bother and expense of transferring schools, which isn’t insurmountable — but four years of college are a big enough endeavor without having to go through that, if you can avoid it. #beentheredonethat
Not to mention that having a major in mind is crucial to the college search process. It’s the most important way to narrow down the list of the gazillion schools out there. Without it, the college search can be overwhelming.
My son had no clue what he wanted to study or pursue — and he didn’t seem motivated to figure it out. This was a pretty big “danger, danger, Will Robinson” signal for us!
On the other hand, if the teen already has a serious interest in something that doesn’t require college, then there is no reason not to continue down that path. College isn’t the only way to prepare for adulthood or a career. Many interests can be developed in other ways, even if your kid would otherwise do well at the college level.
Not every kid who CAN succeed at college NEEDS to go to college, y’all.
5) Is your teen motivated by good grades? Or is money a better motivator for them?
The teen who loves getting good grades and hates getting bad ones is often a great fit for college, because they will be motivated to do the work and follow directions and give the professor what they want in order to get those A’s.
The teen who says “meh” to grades of any kind and yet is pumped to receive their paycheck every week might not be such a great fit for college — unless they are studying something that they know will make them even more money, LOL. Which can be a legit reason to go, if it’s a strong enough motivator for them to plow through the classwork.
Yet the teen who loves making money, who feels a sense of accomplishment after a work shift, might do well to begin working full-time after high school rather than going to college. This was my son. No, it wasn’t a job that he wanted to turn into a career, but it was something productive to do when we didn’t yet know what else he might be interested in (see #4 above). He felt wonderful when he could treat us all to ice cream and get really nice Christmas gifts for his sisters. He even took me out to dinner a few times — definitely a benefit that I was not complaining about!
He took TWO gap years until he decided on a course of study. Now he is about to get his Associates degree. He’s planning on another break before transferring to complete his Bachelor’s — if he decides to continue. No worries! He has the desire to be a responsible adult and begin paying his own way in the world — what else are we trying to accomplish, if not that?
6) Does your teen enjoy manual labor? Or are they OK sitting for long periods of time?
The daughter who didn’t finish college used to love taking a break from homeschool to help her dad as he was cutting firewood. It wasn’t just getting away from the books — although that was definitely part of it — it was the satisfaction of moving her muscles and being out in the fresh air. When she went to college she was more often found playing indoor soccer than studying in the library. Coulda predicted that, if we’d been paying attention and weren’t so set on our own agenda.
Again, it wasn’t that she is not intelligent or capable of understanding and doing the college work. It’s that she doesn’t enjoy it. It’s just not a good fit for her. And finally she’d had enough and came home without looking back.
You know what she says now? “It was the best decision of my life.”
What happens when you send a kid to college who doesn’t really belong there? In her case, it was the beginning of panic attacks. We had no clue what they were. Her older sister had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and these symptoms seemed similar — but the doctor said nope, her tight chest and shortness of breath were a result of anxiety. She had never exhibited that before, but in the college environment — where she felt out of place — it rose to the surface.
After coming back home, it took her a couple years to regain her mojo enough to move out of the house and on her own, but now she has a job (possibly a career) that is perfectly suited to her need for simultaneous intellectual interest and physical movement. And she is being diligent with self-study in her passion, digital art, during every spare moment. (When she’s doing that, she doesn’t mind sitting still for hours. Hmmmm, interesting…) In fact, she was recently hired as a temporary on-call artist for a well-known video game creator (it’s a foot in the door!) and also takes commissions online. No college degree required for any of it. Go figure!
I do understand that fear that if we don’t help them along this process — if we don’t make them go to college — that they might ruin their lives (and we would have helped). But ya know what? I’ve found that it’s OK to take some time before proceeding to undergraduate study or to not go at all. The two of my kids that have not finished their Bachelor’s are still productive members of society and are people I like to hang out with. Forcing them to plow through four years of academia may not have worked out that way. It may have damaged the relationship. It may have caused mega stress or even affected their health.
So what can they do if not college?
There are no-doubt way more opportunities than I mention here. This is just to get the juices flowing.
1) Work full-time.
Bringing home a paycheck, learning a good work ethic, being under someone else’s supervision (besides yours), being part of a team — all are great maturity creators. It’s also a chance for the teen to learn more about what they like to do and don’t like to do.
We did not charge our kids rent while they worked full-time and lived at home. If it had lasted longer than just a couple years, though, we probably would have. But for us it was the equivalent of helping pay for college; even though they weren’t at college, we wanted to help financially as we did for their siblings who were at school. That meant we let them keep their money to use for their own interests or to save. (Which brings about more great lessons in fiscal responsibility, even without a rent bill — just sayin’.)
2) Participate in a gap year program.
There are actually official programs out there for kids to travel or immerse themselves in a particular experience during the year after high school graduation. We didn’t do any, since they often require a financial commitment, but I’ve heard of some that sound amazing. A Google search should bring up many.
3) Get an internship or apprenticeship.
If your kid has a glimmer about what they might want as their career, but they aren’t sure if college is the best option, then an apprenticeship or internship can help them learn more about that career without having to sit in class all day. Call it on-the-job training, and for many kids this works better than book learning.
Perhaps there is a local business that would take your teen on as an intern or apprentice. I’ve seen job listings on Indeed.com for Management Trainees and Sales Associate Trainees and other such positions. Or approach someone personally — you never know if they might be interested in working with your kid until you ask!
4) Trade school.
Obviously there are SO MANY options for studying at a trade school. And here’s the thing: this may become a permanent career, and if they’ve found what they love to do then why not? Or it might be a stepping stone to something bigger, when they’re ready to take another step down their career path.
My favorite hair stylist of all time actually quit her elementary-school-science teaching job to start doing hair. Her parents were appalled! But she won awards at her newfound craft and eventually opened her own salon and became a trainer for a national hair product supplier. She is GREAT at what she does, and her clients are all the recipients of her talent and in-depth knowledge. She is fulfilled and happy.
5) Homeschool through college — or at least part of it.
Maybe what your kid needs is not to leave home for college but to continue in self-study mode and take college classes online. Or study for CLEP tests and take a bunch of the exams to get college credits.
This would be ideal for the teen who would succeed in college in all ways except the social aspect. Maybe they are uncomfortable with the idea of interacting with professors or groups of peers or even with living in the dorm room with another person. All of these skills will probably develop over time, but forcing them to occur prematurely might cause more anxiety and stress than it’s worth.
If the teen can be diligent to do the work, continuing to homeschool might actually be the best of both worlds (going to college and yet not going to college, if you get what I mean).
6) The military.
We never pursued this, but it’s a valid option when it’s a good fit. ‘Nuff said there.
Well, at the moment I’m tapped out for more ideas — and this article is getting VERY long! — but this will hopefully get you started.
Our story isn’t over yet. I’ve got one more kid due to head to college in the fall. I think it’s the best option for her right now, although even in her case there were some hiccups. She didn’t pursue the college search diligently until it was time to “fish or cut bait” — and she finally chose to fish. It all came together in a whirlwind, including a softball scholarship, and I am preparing for an empty nest next year. (Except maybe the one getting the Associate’s will come back home to work for a year or two — one can only hope!)
You know what? I have LOVED having my adult kids live at home with us. I get to be part of their lives but with no responsibility for them, LOL. I get people to converse with about a variety of subjects and to watch movies with and to give/receive hugs to/from them. They are my favorite people in the world! Why wouldn’t I enjoy spending a few more years with them?
Takeaway? Don’t rush your teen off to college just because you have it stuck in your head that’s what they’re supposed to do.
Consider all of these indicators from both Part 1
and this page and evaluate if college is actually the best option for them. Remember the good, better, best principle and make the BEST decision for YOUR teen. You won’t regret it!