When it came time for Matt Sandel to apply to college, he had no idea where he wanted to go, much less what he wanted to study. “All that was up in the air,” says the 19-year-old from Arlington Heights, Illinois. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
Matt was starting to understand that he was not ready for college.
Sandel decided it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of money taking classes at a traditional four-year college. Instead, he entered the honor’s program at Harper College, a community college just outside of Chicago.
Two years later, Sandel now knows what he wants. “I have Harper to thank for that, and mostly, my chemistry teacher. He really got me into chemistry, and now, I’m going to major in it.” This fall, Sandel will transfer as a junior to a four-year college, either the University of Illinois or DePaul University.
There are many teenagers who, like Sandel, opt for a path that doesn’t lead straight through the ivy-covered halls of a traditional four-year liberal arts college. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, only about 46 percent of all high school graduates immediately enrolled in a four-year college. Many other high school students are not ready for university life.
But for many parents, especially those with bachelor’s degrees, this nontraditional path can be hard to take. “It can be anxiety provoking,” notes Lloyd Leanse, a Bay Area resident and Stanford University graduate. Her oldest son enrolled at Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, after high school. He was also working at a nearby Apple store.
“Coming out of middle school and high school, he just didn’t have a clear sense of direction,” explains Leanse. “Now, he feels quite successful and is more interested in finishing school.” His son is still working for Apple, while taking a year off before enrolling in a four-year college next fall, possibly the University of San Francisco or San Francisco State.
When teenagers are not ready for college, Leanse and parents like him are wise to embrace alternatives to pushing their teenagers into a traditional college setting.
“Today, parents think their child’s whole future is resting on college. So, if their child comes to them and says, ‘I’m not ready for college,’ it scares them,” says P. Carol Jones, author of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? “But, it’s a waste of time and money if you force your child to go to college when they are not ready or if they don’t want to go,” she adds. “Especially when there are so many good and viable alternatives out there.”
Jones ought to know. Her son also took a circuitous path to college: traveling abroad, enrolling at community college and working before finally enrolling at Colorado State University. “He’s in his fourth semester now,” Jones says. “He’s dead serious and doing very, very well.”
These days, there are many reasons why teenagers don’t head off to a four-year college after high school. Many just aren’t ready to live away from home. Others never much enjoyed school to begin with. They aren’t interested in diving right back in after just a few months of summer. Then, there are those teenagers who are passionate about a particular career and want the hands-on training that a traditional college can’t offer. Many also just want to take a breather and work or volunteer for a while before starting a bachelor’s degree.
But how’s a parent to know whether stepping off the straight path to a four-year college makes sense for their teenager?
Well, say the experts, there are clues.
3 Clues that Taking Time Off Before College Might Be Best:
1. Resisting college
For starters, if your student is dragging her heels or telling you she doesn’t want to go, pay attention. “Sometimes the child will just tell you, ‘I don’t want to go. I’m not ready for college,” says Thalia Thompson, founder of College Admissions Coaching.
2. Struggling with applications
Above-average struggles during the application process are another warning sign. “There tends to be a lot of push, pull, and it’s hard to get the student motivated. If any kind of talk about going to school is met with resistance, that’s a clue,” Thompson adds.
3. Lacking life skills
Or a parent may just sense that a teenager needs a year or two before he or she can be successful at a four-year college. “If you child doesn’t have the ability to take care of his own time and priorities, or if she’s afraid to speak to adults and can’t self advocate –this is a young adult, who maybe still needs some more time,” Jones says.
Indeed, take a look at the statistics, and it’s clear that many teenagers who do enroll in a four-year college right after high school shouldn’t have. 30 percent of college freshmen “drop out, flunk out or disappear for other reasons,” Jones adds. “It’s true. It’s not just that they can’t make it academically; they can’t make it, period.”
That’s not much of a surprise to Harper College’s Sandel. “I saw a lot of my friends who went to a four-year school get pulled out the first semester. They weren’t quite ready for the freedom. Knowing myself back then, I would have been doing the same thing.”