What to do if your student isn’t ready for college

Yesterday, I wrote a post for parents about signs that your student might not be ready for college. Today, I want to give some advice about what parents can do if you’ve made the difficult assessment that college just isn’t right for your student at this time.

1.  Don’t give up too early.

Let’s say a junior in high school is really struggling academically.  It would be entirely reasonable for her parents to make the assessment that she’s not ready for college and that she will instead attend a community college.  But while the college timeline dictates that kids apply to four-year colleges early in their senior year, students don’t decide where–or if–they’ll go until 6 months later at the end of the senior year. For some teenagers, that six months can bring them the maturity and perspective they didn’t have before.

For some families, it might make better sense to just take the college option off the table earlier.  But for others, you might consider moving forward with the application process and seeing if anything changes during the six months you’re waiting for decisions from schools.   Just because a student applies to college doesn’t mean you’re committed to sending her. But if a student doesn’t apply, that decision, at least for the coming academic year, is made.

2. Recognize that the college dream is never really gone.

Today’s students and parents have been conditioned to believe kids get one chance to apply to college–during their senior year in high school.  But that’s not the case.  A motivated student who’s ready can always apply to college.  And a student who isn’t interested in or ready for college at age 18 may feel very differently at age 21.    Yes, there are some life realities in play here (it gets harder to go to college as you get older and your life gets more complicated).  But lot of successful people waited to start college (or had to go back to finish).  The college dream doesn’t necessarily end immediately after high school.

3.  Investigate community colleges.

Community colleges allow students to do remedial work to make up classes they didn’t pass in high school.  And more importantly, most community colleges make transfer agreements with selected four-year schools.  Those agreements spell out which classes a student needs to take, and what grades she needs to earn, in order to guarantee (or virtually guarantee) admission to the four-year college as a junior transfer student.  And best of all, most four-year colleges won’t look at the high school work of a junior transfer.  So a student who’s ready to get serious about attending a four-year school can get a fresh academic start at a community college. 

4. Require that your high school graduate get a job.

If your student isn’t attending college or community college after high school, I would require him or her to get a full time job.   A student who wasn’t motivated to take the college process seriously isn’t likely to find that motivation if he can still live with Mom and Dad and not have to worry about paying rent.  A student who gets a full time job will at least be getting some job experience (never a bad thing).   And sometimes, life as a full-time worker can make college life look a lot more appealing.

We once worked with a transfer student who didn’t want to apply to college while he was in high school.  He spent the next two years after graduation working at Jiffy Lube, had gone back to community college and was now trying to transfer to UC Berkeley.  I remember the best line from his college essay:

I’ve swept floors.  I’ve cleaned bathrooms.  I’ve burned my hands on exhaust manifolds, worked 12-hour days, and still not had enough money to get my own car fixed.  I didn’t know in high school what life without a college degree looked like.  But I do now.

5.  Encourage your student to pursue an existing interest.

A student who isn’t going to college needs to get serious about finding something that interests him or her.  This is not the time to dawdle around the house or hang out with their friends all day.  If your daughter loves sports, encourage her to get a job at a sporting goods store, or to coach a club volleyball team, or to take sports managements classes at a community college.  If your son likes to travel.  Encourage him to live and work in another country for six months.  If she likes nature, have her volunteer to give tours in a national park.  If he likes drawing, get a job in an art shop, or an unpaid internship at graphic design studio.

Even if the motivation for college isn’t there, encourage your student to follow whatever motivation she does have.  Pursue the interest and it will eventually lead somewhere.

Bonus tip:  Recognize that kids today don’t necessarily have to go to college to be happy and successful.

We’re in the college business here, and I believe that a college education provides students with four years of growth, learning and fun that just can’t be measured or duplicated.  But the world has changed a lot in the last 30 years (and even more in the last ten).  Today, everyone has access to information.  A motivated person can learn whatever you want to learn, from how to fix cars to how to interpret classic works of literature.  College graduates don’t enjoy the same automatic benefits of preferred jobs and social status that they used to.  The world is slowly realizing that talent and intellect aren’t reserved for those with college degrees.  So, if college just doesn’t appear to be in your student’s future, don’t focus on what might have been.  Focus on what could still be, with or without a college degree.