So Your Kid Isn't Going To College...

This is an insane time of year if you happen to have a high school senior in your family. Senior year, from a parents' perspective, is like a giant, out-of-control, no-brakes freight train...a powerful, soot-stained steel bullet careening towards you, black plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

This is it. This is the moment we all see off in the faraway distance when we strap those wee little backpacks onto wee little preschool or kindergarten backs. This is the end goal, the level-up. The last year of school.

According to social media, this is also the time when parents proudly announce which college their progeny will be attending come fall. Your Facebook feed becomes a veritable avalanche of pictures featuring smiling kids donned in their future alma mater colors. Hearty congratulations are passed around like cigars in an old-timey maternity ward. Their futures are so bright, so shiny! Parents talk about how proud they are, and rightfully so. College is indeed an honorable next step after high school. Some might say the natural, right one.

But guess what? Not all kids go to college. And that's okay, too. In fact, sometimes it's the best, smartest and most reasonable step.

This year, I am the parent of a college-bound kid. As I was two years prior. Four years ago, however, I wasn't. My eldest child did not go to college. In fact, he didn't even apply to any. Back then, I felt something that was an awfully close cousin to embarrassment. Failure even. Not on his part- no! I felt like a loser parent who hadn't pushed hard enough, who hadn't followed the carefully laid out steps to get my kid into college. What I wish someone had told me back then, was what I'm laying down for you now.

Not all kids go to college. And that's okay.

Our world is changing at a breakneck speed. What was once an easy choice to make is now one fraught with scares and complications. Money, of course, is the biggie. There are articles and essays everywhere about the cost of college and who's supposed to pay it. Some parents have had the good fortune and the foresight to put money away for their future scholar. Others, like yours truly, couldn't have done it no matter how good our intentions were.

College is expensive. Horrifyingly so. Even if your kid goes to a local school, a state school, it isn't cheap. If you are one of those who have been socking away a bit of each paycheck, good for you! Way to go. You've given your kid a great head start. Even luckier is the child who has grandparents or other relatives who want to foot the bill. What a gift.

There are countless scholarships and grants, but most of the time those just take some of the squeeze out of that tuition bill. The unfortunate reality for many college students now is having to take out loans. I don't know about you, but the thought of sending one of my kids out into the world with a huge debt on their shoulders doesn't sound awesome. Especially when you look at what fresh college graduates are making (depending on their chosen career path).

There is also the matter of readiness. Some kids are, some aren't. Don't we all know of the boy/girl who left for school only to come home after a semester or two? When I was 18 I was nowhere near ready for college. I was immature and spacey and had so much growing up to do. I took a year off but that proved to be not quite long enough. Dropped out midway to pursue a career as a flight attendant. Again, nothing wrong with that profession but guess what? That wasn't my calling either. I kind of fell into my longest-running gig, motherhood, and put my education on one of those out-of-sight back burners. Which, once I found myself divorced and poor, was not the best choice I could have made. I am a life lesson, folks.

I wish I could go back in time and be a bigger cheerleader for my firstborn. He knew he wasn't ready for college and, armed with that knowledge, he took his time. What we used to call "taking a year off" is now called "gap year" and in my son's case, it was a gap-and-a-half. Almost two gaps.

He lived at home. He worked his ass off. He saved money and grew up a little and took time to think. And when he was good and ready, he signed himself up at the local community college. Most of it was covered with grants and scholarships, the rest he paid for. Eventually he applied to transfer to a private four year college here in Minneapolis and that's where he is today. He's not on the four-year track, or even the five-year one.

He's on HIS track. And I couldn't be prouder.

I have one more kid left, and I'm beginning to gently encourage him to look into other post-high school options. You know why? Not because I don't think he's "college material", but because I don't think he's ready. Not by a long shot. Who knows what the next two years will bring for him, though. He might wake up one day and be all rah-rah about it, and if so, I will support him 100%.

But, he might not. And that is something I will also support completely.

Look. This isn't an anti-college rant. I believe in education and it's something I've harped on about for so long my kids can recite the speech verbatim (it goes something like "look at me! Don't be me! Find something you like to do and finish your education!! USE ME AS YOUR WORST CASE SCENARIO!!").

Nobody can argue against getting educated. A degree is never worthless...this is something any of us who work for a living can tell you. I've seen people get jobs simply because of that piece of paper, beating out other candidates who are armed with many more years of experience. And if degrees talk, then advanced degrees shriek, people.

But. There are so many other options out there. Options that might not strike our college-happy society as brag-worthy, but are honorable and smart nonetheless.

Like I tell my kids: there will always be things that need fixing. Cars, plumbing, appliances, houses. People will always need haircuts and clothing and food. Our military is all volunteer. I know people who work at Costco making more money and with better retirement packages than some people with advanced degrees. A quick Google search will show you endless success stories of people who have made it big without college.

It can happen. And for some people, it does. That doesn't mean I think college is irrelevant or a waste of time and money. Quite the opposite. But it depends upon the person. It's a very case-by-case scenario and a very personal one at that.

So to those of you who aren't already thinking about dorm room purchases or how it's going to feel when you hug your college freshman goodbye, know that your kid has probably already made one of the smartest decisions of their life.

Be proud of them.


  1. Great Post my friend! Gosh do I have "experience" in all of what you said. Which is based off my path, which was just like yours..only I worked at MatchMaker Intl. My bff, was confused , because around here, they proudly display BIG banners in their yards.. saying CONGRATS and good luck at WHATEVER COLLEGE.. she said what are we suppose to do? Order a banner that says Good Luck at Kroger as a bag boy? You just can't put that up in the esteemed neighborhoods! HA! You know our story with my daughter.. well .. she JUST announced she quit her full time job, with benefits, 401K, training.. to accept a job waitressing and going back to school , college full time. I should be thrilled right??!! But she will be 26, who pays her insurance.. I have asked who is paying for her school, because the money we had for her and our retirement went to saving her life from drugs.. but I don't get any answer from her or my husband.. so I guess that means we are paying.. what about rent? I get no answer.. I should be thrilled.. but I am thinking retirement.. vacation maybe.. our medical, we r getting older.. 2 weeks ago, we found out our son going back to school after a 3 year break. Oh yes.. I tried mention back at 18, to take a year off, mature, bank some money, take some community collage classes cheaper... no way was he buying into that.. he was seeing the dorm room decorated with his bff, the alcohol bottles lined up on top of desk. My dear husband bought into his dreams.. and got more loans for him.. even when he wasn't showing up for class.. now we are paying 600.00 a month in loans.. cause he can't pay and we cosigned. I asked if he moving home to do the community college..( only reason we r stilling living here, hoping he will come back and make some bank).. of course he isn't..his taste of freedom is too big! He doesn't like I say no, your friends can't come over after the bars close and crash.. Seems we both got used to our new norm lifestyles. He is working with the college and he will get loans and some little money from the school.. and according to him, he will graduate from the college he wanted to.. and come out with 600.00 to 800.00 a month in loans. I don't know if there is right answer.. I honestly think both my kids needed to learn what they have in these early adult years... possibly more than "book" learning. And the weirdest part is.. my husband is more understanding than me, and he has a Phd! And paid for school himself! But, I wish it was acceptable to say Good Luck at Costco!

  2. Jenny:

    Loved the post. Quick question. With all the shady maneuvering of big daddy during the divorce, did college ever come up? Did he ever acknowledge that his kids have needs after high school? Is he supporting their choices?

  3. Very true! In my family, it's almost the opposite attitude. My sister and I were seen as snobby because we went to college, in a family where our siblings and cousins largely did not go to college. And guess what? Because I stayed home with kids, my brothers who did not get degrees but worked consistently throughout their lives now make more money than I do with my private college diploma. And they love to remind me of that.

    Great post to remind people there are other paths in life to success and contentment. As a single parent, I won't have the means to pay for my kids' tuition and I don't want them to have to take out enormous loans, either. It's scary!

  4. I can totally relate to using myself as a worst-case example for my kids LOL. I do that all the time.

  5. Great post. Every kid has to find their path in their own time for certain. My oldest just graduated as Valedictorian with a 4.37something and 50some college credits. So people assume she is going to college, maybe even Ivy League. But she is actually entering a monastery and wants to be a nun. People have no idea how to respond to that. So awkward, but I am happy for her because she is so certain of her choice.

    1. Very Admirable! I think it's great, good for your daughter. She is leaps and bounds above most of her peers!

  6. "Elite" college attendance doesn't seem to be the status symbol it used to be. I admire kids that figure out their own best plan. :-)

  7. This is a great post, thanks! I always say that being a plumber is where the real money is--I wish I was better with my hands! My son will be a senior next year and he wants to go to college, but he also doesn't like school. I've told him just go and try it, and it should be different. But I've also said, if he decides he doesn't like then he can leave and do something else. Each thing you try will teach you something about yourself, and better to try when you're still young and relatively unencumbered with life events.

  8. I've always thought 18 was quite young to decide what you wanted to do/be with the rest of your life, so I think having a bit of time off to explore, experience and ponder what that might be is a really good idea. Too many kids to go college, ringing up $$$$$ of debt, changing majors a few times before finally deciding to delcare a major. WTH?! These days, who can afford that??

  9. Amen!!!
    Waving from another western suburb. It goes by two initials so I'm sure you know it. #1 was in no way ready to go to college but signed up for one semester and never attended class. #2 also was not and still isn't ready at age 24. (Insert very long story) #3 was clearly ready but wanted to take a year off to save some money. He's 20 and attended spring semester of a local college. He met a girl...I know he failed one class and am afraid to ask about the other. #4 the girl is a sophomore this fall declares she is going away to college and wants to be part of a sorority.
    I just want them happy and healthy. This is the same wish I had for them while they were growing in my belly...

  10. Really they all go (IF they go) later!

  11. Thanks for this story - it made me feel better about my middle child's decision to take a step back after her first year of college.


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