For many high school seniors, college is inevitable. It’s something they worked hard to achieve throughout high school, keeping their grades up and distinguishing themselves with extracurriculars. They’re excited to take the next step in their education and they have the proper preparation and motivation to do well.
Having worked with undergraduates for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen lots of students who have thrived in college, taking honors coursework and doing amazing research projects and internships. But for every overachiever I worked with, I counseled a dozen who didn’t want to be there and struggled to pass their courses.
Over the years I came to recognize a difficult truth: college is not the right choice for everyone (at least, not right away).
But many middle-class parents don’t want to admit that their sons and daughters aren’t ready for higher education. Their children may not be emotionally mature enough to handle the sudden independence. They often don’t know what they want out of life, which is one reason why many of them can’t settle on a major. And there are plenty of students who aren’t yet able to manage their time or finances, problem-solve, or make good decisions about social activities and illicit substances.
If you’re a parent of a high schooler, listen to what your child is telling you. If they’re not excited about moving away to a four-year college, here are some alternatives.
Community college is a great option for almost all students. They are close to home, inexpensive, and non-competitive to attend. Community college professors don’t generally have to worry about publishing and tenure, so instead, they can focus on teaching and their students. Classes are much smaller than the typical university class. Community colleges are great options for students to get basic requirements out of the way — things like English composition, foreign language, or state government requirements.
Community colleges also often have a wider range of courses beyond just core academic requirements, so students can explore different areas of interest and learn good study habits studying things they enjoy.
And while community colleges don’t have fancy dorms or football teams or fraternities, many still focus on student culture and community. And because the stakes are lower and students can get more individualized attention, community colleges offer a great way to transition to a four-year college. Best of all, because they are much cheaper to attend, by taking the first two years’ worth of classes and then transferring to a four-year school later, it can also substantially reduce the total student debt.
Learning a trade
Becoming an auto mechanic or a plumber or a carpenter isn’t a bad thing. Neither is becoming a webmaster, a realtor, or an EMT. Some people are better with a physical job or working with their hands.
What many parents forget is that many students crave these opportunities, often with the chance to eventually work for themselves, but university coursework doesn’t open up these options to them. Instead, students are told to study ‘business’ if they want to be an entrepreneur.
Depending on the area, students can take courses at a community college or enroll in apprenticeship programs through trade unions or associations. For example, someone wanting to become an electrician might reach out to the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) or the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC). Similar organizations exist for other trades.
Getting a full-time job
Many parents think they’ve failed if their son or daughter eschews college and wants to get a job. Without a degree or experience, such jobs are usually low-paying and unskilled, and parents worry that their children will never achieve anything with their lives if they don’t go to college immediately.
But for some teenagers, real-life experience is critical before they can consider college. A lot of 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with their lives. It’s hard for them to commit to a major and a career path so early in their journey. So working for a year or two can really give them the space to grow up and figure out what they really want to do.
I’ve worked with many ‘nontraditional students’ (usually students over the age of 24). Almost every single one of them truly wanted to be in college and valued the time there. Their life experience gave them focus and drive, and they experienced far more success than their slightly younger peers. Most of them sought out honors and leadership positions that made them great candidates for jobs or grad school.
I recall one nontraditional student I got to know pretty well. She had become emancipated at age16, lived a difficult life for several years, but then applied to college, got several scholarships, and blasted through her coursework. She did an honors thesis, went to law school, and became a successful attorney.
You might think this is an option only for wealthy kids. And sure, it can take significant resources for someone to travel across Europe these days.
But it doesn’t have to be so elaborate or expensive. Maybe your son can live for a few months with a relative or a family friend in another city. Or perhaps your daughter can go on a cross-country road trip or take a train to different cities.
Having to be out on their own for a few months, navigating bureaucracy and sticking to a budget, can really help a young person figure out their values. And they’ll almost certainly grow up in the process.
Volunteering and internships
If you don’t mind your kid not earning a living right away, they can grow up and find out about the world and possible career paths by volunteering with an organization near and dear to their heart. Do they want to be a vet? Maybe they could volunteer at local animal shelters. Or if they’re interested in politics, maybe they should get an internship with a state senator or representative, or work on a political campaign. There are tons of nonprofit organizations that could use volunteers, and these positions often offer much more complex responsibilities than your average entry-level job.
The great thing about this option is that as your son or daughter works for one of these organizations, they are gaining valuable professional experience and references that can help them get full-time jobs later, or boost their chances of getting into their dream college when they’re ready.
But what if…
A lot of parents may fear that if the students don’t go right into college, they never will. That’s a legitimate concern, and in any family discussions, that topic should be on the table.
But in my experience, I’d say it’s better to never go to college and escape huge debt than attend college, do poorly, and have nothing to show for it.
I’ve known lots of people who, after a couple of years of “finding themselves,” were desperate to go to college to get a better job. These people busted their butts to get scholarships and submit stellar college applications and then ended up graduating with honors. And they were much happier, and could value their college education, because they understood what they wanted to achieve.
Jackie Dana is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist based in St. Louis. Although she has eclectic interests, her focus is on articles designed to help people find their way through an uncertain world. She published her first novel in 2015. In addition to writing, Jackie might be brewing herbal potions or reading a great YA novel. For her latest articles and other tantalizing goodness, be sure to subscribe to her mailing list.