To the Parents of High School Seniors

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Dear Parents of High School Seniors,

You don’t know me. In about nine months, your child will walk into a classroom on a college campus. Most likely, I, or someone just like me, will be standing in front of your wide-eyed, excited child explaining what a syllabus is.

Unless your child isn’t excited. Unless your child doesn’t want to be in college. Unless your child is feeling societal and parental pressure to make the most expensive mistake of his/her life.

Are you listening to your child? Are you really?

I’m betting that right now your child is filling out applications and writing college application essays. I’m guessing that over the last year or so, you traveled as much as possible to visit a bunch of different college campuses. I’m also guessing that you have had long, in-depth conversations with your child about choosing the right college.

Does your child like school now? Then your child is a good candidate for college.

Is your child excited about this process? If the answer is yes, then your child is a good candidate for college.

Is your child the type of kid who can make the best out of a bad situation? Then your child will be okay in college.

If these don’t apply to your child, think long and hard about making your child go to college directly out of high school.

What if I suggested that before your child applies to college, you make sure your s/he wants to go there and that you really listen to the answer?

No, really. Just hear me out.

Every year, I find out through the convoluted conversation that comes from addressing a nearly failing student, that the student fought with his/her parents about going to college. These kids break my heart. They want to please their parents so much but they are so miserable doing it. Yes, I’m the teacher who hears the story and encourages them away from college.

Do you want to know why?

Because they are not ready. They are not willing. And they are very, very, very sad. They are also failing and making very, very, very bad life decisions.

Our society forces 18-year-olds into a debt they don’t want to take on because their parents are convinced that life will be better with a college education. With no other recourse, some of these kids fail for varying reasons: not college ready, not mature enough, don’t care, or rebelling against their parents. $50,000 is an awfully large price to pay to learn that your child is strong willed or immature.

Look, I get it. We grew up in the 1970s or 1980s believing, as did our parents, that a college education would give us entrance to a better life. We believe, still, that this is what will happen for our kids.

The reality is that is not true.

My undergraduate college in 1999 was $32,000/year. That was pretty bad. However, the cost is now upwards of $50,000/year. The jobs out of college have not changed that much. They all still kind of suck and are all still relatively low paying, especially when you factor in the college loan payments. I have already determined that my son won’t be going to my alma mater unless something insane happens.

We should feel free to allow our kids to make the decision about college on their own. They are the ones who will incur a starter home’s worth of debt for the cost of four years of education.

When you bought your first house, did you think it through carefully? Did you just buy a house because everyone said you should or did you save up and wait until the time was right? If you think about the debt incurred going to college as equivalent to a starter home, 18-year-olds should have the time to make an informed decision.

If your high school senior is not sure about college, imagine that college is a house. If your 18-year-old was asking for a house, would you buy it or let him/her buy just any house without thinking it through? Would you force your child to buy a house if you didn’t think s/he was ready? Would you make your child buy a house just because all the neighbors’ kids are buying them?

I can almost hear you right now. I can hear you saying, “Yeah, right. You’re all high and mighty telling ME this but when it comes time for YOUR kid, what would YOU do?”

What would I do? I hope that I will ask my son what he wants. I hope that I will listen to him. I hope that I will help him find options to a career. Back in March, I read an opinion article by Robert Reich arguing in favor of trade schools and the importance of promoting them as an option.

I would suggest that if he wanted to try out college on a conditional basis that he get his general education requirements out of the way at a community college. Community college instructors are often really amazing (I was one… I know them well). If my son failed his first year of community college, the cost of failure would be 1/5 the cost of failure at a four-year college. Cheap lessons are better than expensive lessons.

I implore you, Parents of High School Seniors, to listen to your children. They know themselves better than you think they do. Trust them if they say they don’t want to go to college. Trust them to start understanding their lives. Give them the space to look at what they want. If a year working in a backbreaking job with no mobility is what they want? Let them try it with the caveat that they revisit options once a year is up. If they want to go to a trade school, accept that they know their strengths and weaknesses better than we know them.

These children, these ones who know that they do not want to be in college, these children are failing. We are failing them by forcing upon them an outdated societal model for upward mobility. The price of college has outpaced the socioeconomic mobility it can provide. When we parents force some of our children into an academic setting they hate, we set them up to fail. We spend the first eighteen years of their lives helping them succeed. Then they get to their last year of high school and, in some cases, we force them into an emotional and physical place where they will fail. We say we do this for them, but we are are failing them.

Listen to your children, Parents. Please. If they say no? Then remember, no means no. Don’t talk to them. Listen to them. Really listen. I’m betting that they’ll tell you something you don’t want to hear but something they need you to know.


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3 thoughts on “To the Parents of High School Seniors

  1. This post is correct in theory, but horribly wrong in practice. It’s only a semantic error, and unfortunately, it’s one that is not unique to this post and is in fact likely a common trap into which this post fell. The semantic error is ingrained in our lexicon and has potentially damaging implications: for prospective students, for their future families, for our economy, for our country. Semantically, the entirety of this post challenges the value of “going to college” immediately following high school and argues, though very briefly by comparison, in favor of “trade schools.” Question, “What is the name of the ‘trade school’ nearest to most students?” With more than 1,100 institutions nationwide, it’s very likely that the name of that institution ends with “community COLLEGE” because a very significant part of the comprehensive community college mission focuses on technical and allied health careers that require only a two year degree for which the vast majority is field-based rather than “general education.” I absolutely agree that not all students should pursue a four-year degree right out of high school, and I agree for many of the same reasons articulated here. However, labeling that four-year degree as “college” is inaccurate and misleading, and describing a community college as serving primarily “general education” is also misleading. A living wage in this country moving forward absolutely will require post-secondary training and credential; community colleges provide that in fast growing, higher-wage careers within their local region. Unfortunately, how many prospective students will never discover those careers at a community college if we continue saying “don’t go to college?” Going to a university may not be for every student but going to college should be.

    1. Having taught both, I fully agree with you. I could do an entire post on the importance of community colleges as a whole totally unrelated to the idea of them as general education. In fact, my first teaching experience was at the community college in the area that had the best program around for technicians in eye doctor offices.

      I apologize to the extent that you viewed this as looking at CC’s only as a Gen Ed replacement. This was simply one suggestion targeted to a specific audience.

      I often feel that our society looks down upon community colleges inappropriately. Perhaps I should write my Ode to the Community College because I have a 20 year love affair with them from before I even worked at one.

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