My oldest son is a high school junior, and the closer we get to the end of the year, the more the pressure is heating up. The pressure to be prepared for college, that is: ACTs, financial aid workshops, campus visits…there’s a lot for a kid to do, and a lot for his parents to worry about.
Going by the college checklists I’ve scoured, I should be doing a whole lot more planning…and worrying. I haven’t signed Jacob up for an ACT prep program or researched admissions criteria at our state’s universities. We haven’t attended any college fairs, planned campus visits, or researched scholarships.
To be fair, chances are slim that Jacob—a solidly mediocre high school student—will be admitted to the better universities in our state, even the public ones, let alone nab any merit-based financial aid.
But there’s more to my apathy than that: While I think higher education is a wonderful thing, I also think a lot of kids just aren’t ready to head right off to college after high school graduation…maybe ever.
I can relate. I spent my high school years busy with social commitments and creative extracurricular activities, but when it came to academics…well, let’s just say there was a reason I was grounded for half my senior year.
I’d focus in with laser intensity during comp or choir class, but find myself staring out the window or goofing off during chemistry or trig. It wasn’t just a matter of poor study skills: I simply didn’t care enough about the rewards to put in the work, regardless of the consequences.
Still, when it came time for all my friends to head off to college, I followed suit, tailing a buddy to a middle-sized state university. I had a lot of fun, but academically, I flailed. I made it four semesters before dropping out, boasting a seriously lackluster GPA, tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to repay, and no better an idea of “who I wanted to be when I grew up” than I’d had at 16.
Eventually, I returned to school, now a mom and a bona fide adult. This time things were different: I focused, “applied myself,” and got all A’s. But the moment I sold an article to a national magazine for a nice fee and realized that I could actually make Real Money as a writer, I started to doubt whether college was the right path for me.
Sure, school was going along fine this time around, but it was also costing a lot of money. I’d proven I could be a professional writer and earn money, with or without a degree. And as a mom of two little kids with another baby on the way, I was pretty sure I couldn’t handle both launching a freelance career and finishing my degree.
So I dropped out of school again, but this time I never looked back.
And now, eleven-plus years later, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to muster up enthusiasm about something I didn’t feel enthusiastic enough to finish myself.
“College is a scam,” Jacob said casually to me the other day.
“No, it’s not!” I reflexively—almost guiltily—retorted.
“Oh yeah? Neither you or Dad finished, and you’re doing fine.”
He’s right. Jon finished about the same amount of college as I did, but he makes a good living as an IT tech with a few certifications. Mostly, though, his career is built on grit, the ability to self-teach, a friendly personality and a quiet confidence that draws clients to trust him. I’ve been a full-time writer for going on 10 years. Between the two of us, we make a good living: we aren’t wealthy, but we have nice things, and nobody in our family goes without.
I know Jon and I are anomalies. A college degree does make most people more traditionally employable, and not everyone is cut out for self-employment—something I say without judgment, because sometimes I think I must be crazy to prefer this roller-coaster lifestyle.
Either way, it’s no surprise that, out of our five children, at least one of them would be like Jon and me. For us, it just happens to be our first child—the one who, through no fault of his own, is our guinea pig; the one whose success seems most threatened by our parental learning curve, the one who’s under the most pressure to do the family proud.
Make no mistake: I absolutely believe that Jacob will do great things and make us all very proud indeed. But I also don’t think the right path for him includes a straight line from high school, to college, to career. And all I have to do is have a conversation with him to realize he’ll be fine, in his own unconventional way.
If more parents were open to that idea, it could save a lot of young adults a lot of grief, struggle, and stress…not to mention often crushing debt.
In a way, I have the opposite dilemma of the typical parent: I see the beauty of a self-directed work life, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished without a degree, and I’m pretty certain that both my husband and I are more financially successful than we would have been if we’d taken more traditional paths.
Yes, I do sometimes worry what other parents think about my laissez-faire attitude toward Jacob’s after-high-school plans. But when it comes right down to it, my biggest job as a parent is to appreciate and try to understand each child for who he or she is, and to help them enter adulthood in the way that’s right for them—whether it’s the path “everyone else” approves of or not.
Some, probably most, of our kids will want to go to college. And while I don’t exactly understand the urge, that’s obviously just fine by me.
But if Jacob takes a year or two or five to get there, or if he gets into his own thing and never makes his way to a college degree, if he starts a business or learns a trade or becomes an artist or writer—just as long as he’s working hard, engaging with the world, and expanding his horizons? Well, that’ll be just fine—more than fine—too.