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When College Isn’t a Choice

by Ellen Gibran-Hesse

Recently I was having dinner with several girl friends. After the frantic winter holidays, it was nice to just relax. Mary (not her real name) shared some family news that was a bit astounding for a private person like Mary. Her youngest son, Ben (not his real name) had completed his first semester in community college and wasn’t going back. Three years ago, this would have elicited an emotional breakdown for Mary.

Ben’s older brother had broken Mary’s heart back then by not staying home and going to college. Like so many of us Baby Boomers, Mary shared the belief that college would give us all the good things such as a great job, great pay, and a great career. Mary and her husband felt well able to send their sons off to college. I am an attorney, life coach, and parental educator on how to get your teens and adult children to independence. It took quite some time for me to convince Mary that you can enter college at any time. Maybe it wasn’t relevant to his career at this time. Her older son had worked through high school with sound systems and DJ stints. Since high school he has been developing his own business as well as working in this field. At 22 yrs. old, he is doing incredibly well. Mary has come to accept that college isn’t for everyone and if needed, is an option down the road.

I remember clearly back in the 1960’s seeing a film in middle school on the merits of going to college. It cited studies that showed that merely having a college degree in any major dramatically increased your salary and choice of well paying jobs. Also at that time, the virtues of a liberal arts degree was extolled as means of being well educated and well rounded. For those in the middle class and blue collar class as my family was, this was the ticket to the American dream. Community colleges sprung up overnight and off we went into the sunset. This was a dream that everyone could aspire to and achieve. And so began the big push in high school to send everyone to college.

But as degrees became more common place, the new rally cry was to get advanced degrees. It seems they are becoming as common place as the bachelor degrees. As one young lady graduating from a four year university said, “I don’t feel grown up enough to go work so I’ll get my master’s.” Our high schools have become obsessed with college testing, college placement, and more testing in general. I always feel so bad for high school seniors who are being constantly asked which college they are going to rather than what are their plans for life after high school. We are a nation with a one third high school dropout rate. Perhaps only one third of graduating seniors will go off to college. Of those going to four year colleges, only half will graduate. Then half of those go home to live with their parents. This is a pretty dismal way to plan for your young adult’s future.

I sit on my school district’s Academy Steering Committee in California. Academies sprang up in the 1960’s as a response to “at risk” kids in high school. These were kids who were not very motivated, missed school, and performed poorly academically. With the current dropout rate and many students reporting in study after study that school lacks relevance and interest, the Academy model seems to be worth incorporating into our general high school curriculum and our college curriculum. In the Academy program, known as “a school within a  school”, students are given academic support, are required to do internships, and mentored by members in the business community to work towards a job and career with college as a piece of the puzzle if desired. The work piece and the apprenticeship piece have gone missing in developing our young adults.
But isn’t this why we are sending our students off to college? To get a good job?

One of the biggest differences between previous generations and the current generation is that many of my generation worked in high school. Work has been a large part of the teen and young adult world in many cultures and throughout history. This idea of “study only” has been a huge aberration to our natural progression into adulthood. When I see Academy students, they have a maturity that I don’t see in many of their college bound peers. They know work realities, managing money, managing life around a job. Our 22 million young adults sitting at home are clueless by and large as to that part of life. It isn’t that they are lazy although they may be on the road to dependency and laziness, it is that they haven’t a clue as to how to plan, apply, and get positions that they can work in and up to well paying positions.

If you have a student who isn’t crazy about going to college or has tried that first semester and doesn’t seem to fit, then you have to go to plan B. Ideally, plan A should have had your student out working during high school. This lets them learn what fits for their personality. My youngest son tried working in a deli and found it nerve racking. That told us to eliminate a lot of service oriented jobs that deal with many customers in placing him in future jobs. My older son loves working with customers because of some of the jobs he has held. But forget about him working with little kids at camp. They wore him out! Young people need to know what they like and don’t like in a job. I recommend getting them into jobs and internships by age 15. Mary’s youngest son just started working in a grocery store. He enjoys it and his co-workers find him to be a good worker. Once you get your young adult working if they are not going to college, create a game plan. How can they advance in the job area they start in? With entry level jobs, they need to decide how to move up the chain or move to a better situation. At each step of the way, evaluate if this is the best field for their preferences and talents. I also recommend that they move out on their own with roommates because this is a critical life skill. Learning to live with others, to manage your time, your money, your social life is all critical to this stage of growth and adult development. I was recently asked if it is all right for them to live at home. Of course it is, if it works for both sides and if they are picking up the critical adult skills of working, managing time, money, chores, and social life.

This all requires communicating with your young adult. Require a plan for building their job resume and require that they start working full time or part time with some college classes. Help them dream and make those dreams come true!

Ellen Gibran-Hesse is a solo practitioner attorney with a B.S. in psychology and a single mother of two sons ages 21 and 18.  She has done extensive work in non-profit organizations with teens and young adults and helped family and friends to successfully launch their children into a successful transition into adulthood for over five years.  She is currently writing a book to assist other parents and parent groups based on her research and experience. 

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