When "Back to School" Doesn't Apply to Your College-Aged Kid

You know the things people say to parents of kids with issues?

It doesn’t stop when the kids get older. But it does change a little bit.

It starts to concentrate around the “C” word ...

“Where is he applying to College?”

“Where is he going to college?”

“Oh ... he’s not in college yet?” (Eyebrows raised)

“Is he ever going to go to college?” (While many people may be thinking this, the only person who is likely to say this to you directly is your mother.)

Once they realize the “C” word may not be part of the current plan (or after the "on-time" college graduation of your child's peers), they switch course and start with the “J/W” words ...

“Where is he Working?” (Note: If in a conversation with the parent of a recent college graduate, this sentence is really about telling you where the other person’s kid has just gotten a job.)

“He doesn’t have a Job yet?” (Here go the eyebrows again ....)

“When is he going to get a job?” (concern)

“Oh, he’s only working part-time?” (uh huh)

“When is he going to get a better Job?” (Usually, only your mother will throw this one at you.)

For the real eyebrow-raisers, wait till you get to the “H” Word: "Home."

“He’s still living at home?”

(Someone actually did say to a friend of mine whose 20-something son has battled some very severe challenges .... “Oh, he’s still living at home? You two must be so close!” .... As if, in some creepy way, she wanted her young adult son to need to be at home with her and had somehow created or exaggerated his issues in that Munchhausen-by-Proxy-for-Issues kind of way.)

And then there is the triple whammy – the great Triple Troika of the “C”, “J/W” and “H” Words together. (Again, you may only hear this one directly from your mother, because only your mother can go right for the jugular in that “I’m only trying to be helpful” kind of way...)

“When is he going to go to/finish College so that he can get a decent Job and stop living at Home?”

You know what?

First of all, I consider it a major accomplishment to get a kid with “issues” to the age of 20+ with his ego intact. And congratulations to any mom or dad or caregiver who has done this, and whose young adult is a caring, compassionate human being ... because that was not an easy task.

Our kids’ self-esteem can be completely shredded during the K-12 years, if none of their strengths can shine through the struggles.

And many of our kids do need extra time to “steep” after high school.

Some of them only need a short brew, and will end up doing so well that, in the future, we may almost forget about what it took for them to get there.

Others will need time to percolate for much, much longer.

And how I wish there were a place for them to do this ... one that allows them to be productive and engaged, but that is completely separate from the “C” word ... while at the same time giving them a chance to gain the maturity and direction they will need if and when they do go to college ... or if and when they bypass the “C” word entirely, and go directly on to the “L” word: “Life.”

Thinking outside the college box

Why is college considered the be-all and end-all goal for everyone? And why is there such a push for that to happen right out of high school?

I’m an educator; I have taught K-12 and at a university, and am the daughter of two college professors.

But I don’t think college – especially right after high school – is right for everyone, especially given the current costs and students loan rates. Not everyone is ready immediately after high school. And that lack of readiness can carry heavy financial and emotional costs.

This can be particularly true for the many young people who have spent years dealing with what I will collectively call "issues" (e.g., learning disabilities, social/emotional challenges, etc.).

But societal pressure is huge, and as noted above, there is plenty of judgment to go around (including self-inflicted) if your older teen is not on the direct college path.

The pressure also comes from the high schools, who are seemingly trying to push every graduating senior into college right away.

Why? Well, they’ll tell you it’s for the kids’ success in career and life. And without a doubt, I do think college is an incredibly valuable step for this. But it's not the only step. And it does not need to be timed to happen directly out of high school.

Here’s the other reason high schools are pushing kids straight into college: because high school rankings depend partially on the percentage of kids who go straight into college upon graduation.

So it is in the high school’s interest to push that ... and to not really care how successful the kids are in college after they get in.

How many first-year students who attend college right out of high school drop out? Answer – close to 30%. The statistics are more significant for students with disabilities; the dropout rate of learning-disabled students is twice that of students without disabilities.

But all those kids counted toward that positive high school ranking, because they went straight to college. They flunked out? Too bad ... but it doesn’t affect the ranking.

What about the kid who took a gap year (or two, or three ...), gained maturity and direction, and then went on to have a fantastically successful college experience? He’s a success story – but not for the high school; he doesn’t count toward the ranking.

This is not all the high schools’ fault, though ... because who is it that places so much emphasis on the high school percentage-of-kids-going-straight-to-college-whether-they’re-successful-or-not rankings?

Well .... that would be us. We do, when we buy houses and look at real estate in those areas.

Something needs to change.

I think we need a whole re-boot about college – especially given what college costs these days, and the debts that our kids (and we) take on for that education. It’s just too expensive now to be a testing ground or a holding pattern. When you get to college, you should be ready, willing and able.

And, as I said .... the more “issues” there are in the mix, the longer that is probably going to take.

So can we please take away the stigma of “not going to college yet”?

Some kids just are not ready.

Here’s a thought: let’s figure out something meaningful, productive and engaging for them to do in the meantime.

“Gap years” are great, as long as they don’t become “gap lives” ... and particularly if there is a skill-acquiring, community-assisting and income-producing component. Let’s turn that “gap” into a path ... and it should be path that could ultimately lead to college ... or somewhere else positive and productive.

Here’s what I would like to see:

• More promotion of programs like the AmeriCorps Program for high school graduates – AmeriCorps is a national community service program, like Peace Corps, but domestic. (However – as a former AmeriCorps Program Manager myself – I strongly feel the program needs to offer a much higher stipend for the AmeriCorps members. It’s a great program, but the current stipends are so far below minimum wage as to qualify for poverty level ... although it does include an additional education award upon completion of service.)

• A National Apprenticeship Program, where young people could do rotations of short-term, paid apprenticeships with a variety of trades – real, hands-on trades.

• A “homeschooling”-type clearinghouse for college-age students (especially those who have had “issues”) who want to pursue independent study in a specific area of interest, and get credit.

• Group help and support for “young entrepreneurs” who have had learning issues but who want to create income-generating jobs on their own (preferably jobs that can be done on flexible time schedules, since so many kids with issues have an extremely late-night circadian rhythm that makes “regular” work hours a huge challenge – and, yes, we have tried setting five Sonic Boom alarms, thank you very much ....... and if it worked, I wouldn’t be writing about it .....).

• More community college or other programs for kids who have had issues, to help them do all of the above – design their own programs of study, create their own internship opportunities, etc., while creating coping mechanisms and strategies that work. I have recently seen a push toward more Competency-Based Education, which is a good step in this direction.

• More alternative and vocational programs within high schools, allowing students to combine independent, creative thinking and "soft" work-readiness skills with "hard" technical skills and competencies, all of which they can apply to their current and future personal and professional development.

• Coaching services provided to young people to help them clarify the skills, passions and opportunities they would like to explore and to create action plans (with accompanying support and accountability check-in's) for moving forward.

I know there’s so much more if we get creative ... and we can – and should – involve our own kids in creating what would work for them.

We have made so much progress in birth-to-grade 12 (not enough, but it is progress) to create more support structures for our younger kids with “issues.”

Let’s not forget that these kids grow into incredibly bright, creative, and wonderful young adults who have so much to offer the world.

And let’s find a way for them to do just that. And while we're at it, let's open up those opportunities, and our mindsets, for everyone.

What suggestions do you have? Let’s open up the national conversation on this!

(*And by the way – these suggestions would benefit all young people, not just those with diagnosed issues.)

Ruth Kunstadter, MA, BCC works with career changers and other individuals who want to connect to their purpose and potential, and to create more self-care, balance, and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. Find out more about creating your best "what's next" at www.newpathwayscoaching.com or by emailing Ruth at NewPathwaysCoach@gmail.com.

#learningdisabilities #collegereadiness #workforcereadiness