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Not Going to College: Don’t Freak Out If Your Teen Says “No” to College

By Jennifer Arnold

College acceptance season is always a stressful time, and the spring of 1990 was no exception. While my friends checked their mailboxes anxiously every day, looking for the coveted thick envelope that would determine the next chapter of their life, our rusty mailbox remained empty. I was one of the approximately five percent of my high school class that had decided on waiting for college, and my parents were at their wit’s end. To them, my choice was not only a source of embarrassment; it was a missed opportunity—an irresponsible decision that ensured a lifetime of mediocrity.

“i don’t want to go to college”

I knew I was making an unconventional choice at the time, but I had a good part-time job, and the manager said he would be more than happy to take me on full time after graduation. It wasn’t like I was planning on loafing around all day in my pajamas watching the daytime soaps. I just wanted some time to figure out what I really wanted to do. That didn’t stop the pressure coming in from all sides; friends, teachers, and especially at home.

Evidently, my mother was feeling some pressure as well. As graduation season approached, I heard a lot of, “I ran into so and so’s mother at the grocery store today. She told me that so and so is going to (Northwestern, Syracuse, UNH, UMass Dartmouth…) in the Fall. Isn’t that nice?” Mom would look at me with hopeful eyes for a reaction to this news and then give a heaving sigh and shake her head when she got nothing.

In the long run, my parents came to accept my choice, but it was pretty tense around our house for a while. When I did eventually decide to apply to college, it was on my own terms and not with some sense of societal obligation or family pressure hanging over me.

Start the Discussion

We’ve already started college discussions with our teenager, as he has brought the subject up multiple times. Since many schools have College Fairs and campus tours that all students can attend, the seed is planted early.

We’ve made it clear that we don’t believe college is necessarily a good fit for everyone and that we won’t pressure him to go. We have also made it clear that if the idea of college doesn’t suit him, he needs to find a viable alternative that does not involve sleeping in and playing video games all day. He must do something productive, even if it’s not in a classroom setting.

Take a Breath and Listen

If I could offer any advice to a parent whose child decides college may not be right for them, it would be “Don’t freak out!” This does no good—trust me. Take a deep breath, and then listen to your kid; I mean, really listen. Find out why they don’t want to go. Maybe they have a game plan already in place. If they don’t, help them explore some non-college options. You can be supportive without putting the pressure on.

There are so many possibilities out there for your teen to be successful, and so many professions that don’t require a four or even two-year degree. Vocational Training and Certification Programs are available for many career choices, and if the prospect of a huge college campus seems too daunting, many degrees are available entirely online. The most important things you can do for your teen during this transitional time is to support, encourage, and keep lines of communication open as they try to figure out the next step of their life journey.

Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold is a freelance writer from Northern California. She has been featured in North State Parent MagazineComplex Child Magazine, and several other publications.