Pressure to get into the right college peaks in junior year. SATs are taken and retaken, colleges are visited, applications are filed and the waiting begins. Except when your kid, like mine, isn’t ready for college. We knew before she did that she wasn’t ready. When people hear your kid isn’t going to college right away, they want to believe her grades are bad or that she’s a troublemaker. They don’t want to know she made honor roll every single marking period, that she was captain of the volleyball team and has several AP classes on her transcript. There’s a stigma to not going to college immediately upon graduation, and if your well-qualified student isn’t going, it’s possible that theirs might not either. The fact is that many high school seniors are entering college blindly. It’s expected of them, and their parents are paying for it. The students take out loans to make up the difference in what their parents can’t pay. Many of them have no idea what they want to major in, or else they want to major in something that will not get them a job that will enable them to pay back that student loan. I took an informal survey of the newer people showing up in my work circles and found that it was not unusual to have $100,000 in student loan debt. I don’t work in a cutting-edge hospital where you might expect high med-school loans; I work in a theater. My husband and I are in the midst of paying off a debt that size that has nothing to do with student loans and everything to do with getting custody of these (his) kids. I know exactly how hard it is for us to work through this mess with two incomes. People right out of school are still getting their foot in the door in our business; I have no idea how they’re making loan payments. With our current debt, we can’t take on loans, nor do we have much of anything to contribute. Our kids know that before any college decisions are made, they need to have a plan. If you could reduce our parenting to one motto, it would be: Take responsibility for your life. We are willing to suggest, help, guide, even cajole, but it must be the child's plan because it’s his or her life. In effect, each of them must answer the question, What do you want to do with your life? The plan can always change, but what is it for now? It takes a certain level of maturity to answer that question, which is where everything broke down with kid number 2. It wasn’t just about the finances, it was emotional. She'd gone through a lot before she came to live with us; it takes time to process that. We suggested she apply to college but defer for a year. Take any job and explore some options for what she might like to do. She could take flying lessons, EMT training in the Rockies—cool experiences that could translate into marketable skills. Everything we suggested she immediately shot down. She remained frozen in a state of panic. Finally she took to heart the idea of deferring. The emotional weight visibly lifted from her. But then she went too far the other way. By November of senior year, she still hadn’t applied anywhere. We reminded her that she wasn’t going to sit in the basement and play video games after graduation. Midway through December we had to threaten to take away Christmas to get her to finish the Common App. At a time when most kids in her school had their acceptances, she was just beginning the process. But as she got more wins, she gained confidence. She was accepted everywhere she applied. She received some academic awards, a couple of scholarships and consistently the highest grade in her physics class. We continued to talk about her plan. She continued to clam up. My husband and I worried about how we could possibly get her moving. One morning in the car, I chanced bringing it up. The car is usually a good place for uncomfortable conversations (just make sure your teen isn’t the one driving). She didn’t realize she had a plan until she spoke it out loud. She had picked a school, worked out living arrangements and decided that she would work and save every dime possible until a year from September. We had no idea.
“That’s a good plan,” I said. “It is?” “Well, yeah, don’t you think so?” “I didn’t think it was a plan, really. Because I don’t know where I’ll work and I’m not positive what I want to study yet.” "You don’t have to have it all figured out to start moving in that direction. Once you take a step, the next steps get clearer to you. That’s how it works.” I snuck a glance at her and was treated to the rare sight of a smile. “So now you just need to defer officially,” I said. “Oh, I did that last week.”
We had been expecting to have to force that action by threatening to take away graduation. As she shared her plan with others, she found only support. Many adults chimed in about how much more valuable she will be to employers after taking this year to work and gain life experience. I would love it if all my kids ended up graduating from college with zero debt and marketable skills that are so in demand they’re writing their own ticket in a career they are passionate about. Wouldn’t we all? But what is absolutely essential for them to understand is that they must go into this whole college thing with their eyes open. No parent wants their kids graduating from college with $100,000 in debt, a worthless degree and no earthly idea what they want to do with their lives. Sadly, blindly going for the college experience without putting mindful thought into it will lead to exactly that. Most likely my kids will end up somewhere between those two extremes. Wherever they go, they’re going to own the decisions that led them there. That already puts them ahead on the path of taking responsibility for their own lives. JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.