By Robin Noble
My cousin’s son is a bright and successful adult who hated school. With effort he pulled Bs and Cs in standard grade-level subjects, but was almost always detached from the material. “I memorized for tests. I changed my writing style based on the teacher. I procrastinated and I crammed,” he said. “But I didn’t learn very much.”
A varsity basketball player with academically inclined friends, he felt a deep sense of loneliness and disgrace as senior year closed in. He didn’t want to go to college, but he also couldn’t focus on any alternatives that didn’t seem distinctly second-class.
His high school counselor eagerly plotted a list of feasible four-year schools. The endless questions from friends and family presumed he was college-bound. His parents asked how his applications were coming along. Never did anyone suggest that he might not be cut out for traditional higher education.
“I applied to three colleges even though part of me knew it was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “I was relieved when I got an acceptance letter in March. The pressure was finally off.”
That respite lasted until fall when he enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Two semesters and $21,000 later, he had a 1.8 GPA, no idea what he might want to do for a living, and a serious case of the blues. He left school and returned to his parents who wondered, where did we go wrong?
“We were following our best instincts,” my cousin said. “We never supposed that college wasn’t the best next step in his life.”
Conventional wisdom can influence even the most attentive parents.
More 18-25 year olds are going to college than ever before. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 32 percent between 2001 and 2011, from 15.9 million to 21.0 million.
“When my son made it clear senior year that he wanted to take time off after high school, and was the only one of his friends to do that, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious. Two years later, he’s working his way through community college. He made the Dean’s List! He’s doing it his own way, at his own pace, and I couldn’t be prouder.” Parent of a 20-year-old
The increase is fueled by many things, including compelling data. The pay gap between college graduates and non-graduates reached a record high last year, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The Institute found that, on average, Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more per hour in 2013 than those without a degree. What parent wouldn’t want their child to go to college?
“Of course I wanted him to get a degree but the truth is he always resisted the classroom and I can’t believe we overlooked that part of him,” my cousin said. “It was really a disservice to all of us.”
There is no question that earning a bachelor’s degree, on average, offers a vast economic advantage. It’s also true that less than half of high school seniors seeking a bachelor’s degree actually attain one. The completion rate for low-achieving students is below 20%.
“The college-for-all mentality is a perfect way to avoid unpleasant issues that are likely to arise as students make plans for the future,” writes Dr. James E. Rosenbaum, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and author of Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half.
Parents, take note. If your student resists traditional classroom learning, if her grades are low, if she’s longing to travel or get to work, then compelling her to go to college right after high school may not serve her.
There are worthwhile choices besides college for the year after high school. Your role is to open up the conversation, listen to your student and consider more alternative options for after high school graduation.
There’s nothing like holding down a full-time job to spur the transition to adulthood. Work is always honorable. Encourage your student to seek more than a part-time position, perhaps in a company where growth from within is the norm. A career counselor can be helpful.
Travel can build resilience, confidence and curiosity, key precursors to success in a university setting. This is one reason why the gap year idea is so popular with European students, who often combine half a year of work with half a year of travel before entering college. The idea is catching on here as well, though American students typically take a more structured approach.
The American Gap Association offers an extensive listing of accredited gap year programs, many service oriented. Some four-year universities in the US offer admission deferment specifically for gap year programs. For students who can’t afford to travel, options such as student exchange programs, cruise ship work, or international au pair jobs may appeal. Research carefully.
Community college, technical school, trades
Community college and two-year associate’s degrees can lead to well-paying and satisfying jobs. Mike Rowe (host of Discovery TV’s “Dirty Jobs”) started Profoundly Disconnected to “challenge the absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.” Although it’s self-promotional, the site provides a decent state-by-state listing of training programs, scholarships, and jobs for non-college occupations.
Community college can also be a way for a working student to ease into higher education, and many community college students eventually transfer to four-year institutions.
This is the route my cousin’s son eventually took. He is now a well-paid Emergency Medical Technician at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He’s willing to live with the risk of foreign deployment. He is earning well, loves his job and is working on a bachelor’s degree that will lead to his becoming a registered nurse, tuition free.