When Your Teen Doesn’t Want to Go to College

By Laura Carlson

Justin just isn't ready for college. He's not even sure if he ever wants to go to college, and tells his mom "No, not interested." What would you do if he were your child?

Last fall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that over 66.2 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in college in 2012. This is down from the 68.3 percent reported for the prior year. For the 2011-12 year, 45 percent of college students were enrolled in public two-year community colleges.

Many students who are reluctant to go to college (or still undecided) join the labor force. The percentage of recent high school grads who were working or looking for employment in 2012-13 was reported at 69.6 percent. It turns out that recent high school graduates NOT enrolled in college were more likely to be employed or looking for work than those who were enrolled in college.

Should you support the "no college" choice?

When it comes to college, your kids may not have the same agenda you do. They do not yet have the life experience that you have acquired. However, by now they know themselves and what they can handle. If they are not ready for college, it's best not to push… because you'll only get pushback.

There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that college graduation rates correspond with higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. But the most important factor to consider may not be the degree, but the person who is studying for to earn it, according to Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege.

"It's the smart and motivated people in our society that tend to go to college," Stephens told The New York Times. "I bet if you took those smart and motivated people and put them out into the work force, they would earn more than other people."

In other words, Mr. Stephens seems to have the view that it is alright for students to take a "gap year" to figure out their goals and make better, more informed choices about their future and their advanced education. Regarding the decision to go to college, he said, "Understand why you're going so you can make the most of your experience. Be honest about it."

What about "gap year" experiences?

For some students in families who have planned for it, a "gap year" may offer an opportunity to explore new life experiences. It seems to be a growing trend in the United States, although it has been a popular practice in many other countries for many years.

While there are no official statistics on this trend, the Higher Education Research Institute estimates that just over 1.2 percent of students took a "gap year" to do something else, and deferred their freshman college admission. What happens during this year away from college? Some use the time to learn a foreign language, while others work, gain trade or vocational skills, or participate in humanitarian programs overseas.

Parents worry that by allowing their kids to take a year off, they may end up with kids who don't return to school. Statistics show otherwise. In fact, more than 69 percent go on to college-with stronger focus and greater drive.

Alternate Options to Four-Year College

  • Community college: Some kids need a little extra time to stay home and mature. Some families don't have the budget to pay for four years at an expensive university. Some kids are not ready for a commitment to a four-year program. In those cases, community college may be best.

  • Trade or other specialty school: Whether it's auto repair, culinary school or paralegal training, there are vocational schools and programs to support nearly every interest.

  • Work: It may be helpful to earn some money and get experience through a full- or part-time job. Of course, it would be ideal to pursue a field your son or daughter might be interested in. But, learning the routine and responsibility of reporting to work, communicating and coordinating with a supervisor and co-workers will help them gain valuable experience. It can also help them handle greater responsibility or gain leadership skills.

  • Internship : Whether volunteer or paid, an internship can provide the same valuable experiences and skills that a part-time job might offer, but perhaps in more corporate environments.

  • Other education or life experiences: Your child can gain valuable life experience by traveling or enrolling in a program as a foreign exchange student or volunteering for a non-profit organization abroad. There are volunteer programs in the U.S. that might give your child experience working with people from different geographical areas or economic levels.

  • Military service: Some students choose to enlist in a branch of the military after high school in order to gain skills and also gain benefits, grants, scholarships or other assistance for future educational programs.

What if your teen wants to quit college?

It happens. Take the case of Laura, an 18-year-old who went out of state to attend college. She had never lived away from home. She chose a major that she thought she'd like but, unfortunately, the college scene and studies did not fit her dream or her personality. She returned home and told her parents she wanted to quite college and go to culinary school instead.

Her parents, both of whom had bachelor's degrees from prestigious universities, had a difficult time accepting this and tried to talk her out of it. However, once they saw her resolve and accepted it, things went much smoother. Laura moved back home and attended a local culinary school. Her friends tried to woo her back to college and her grandmother harped on her to attend the local community college. But neither of these options was the right fit her.

Laura completed culinary school and her parents began to share her joy in her pastry creations-they were like works of art. They supported and encouraged her efforts. After completing culinary school, Laura got a job with a prestigious restaurant in New York City. Although the hours are long, she is moving up the ladder quickly. She is happier and loving each day of her life.

This case study can be a helpful reminder that parents sometimes need to take a step back-and understand that their child may take a different path than what was expected. It might be that he or she chooses a trade or discovers a different career path. Keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily mean that college has been rejected forever, or that college is the only avenue of approach to a successful career.