Going Right to College Would Have Been a Big Mistake for My Son

My son graduated high school this past June. Unlike all his friends he is not unpacking his things in a dorm room, rushing a fraternity, or signing up for college classes. While all his former classmates and friends are off to college he is in Asia, exploring and learning about the world and ideally himself in the process.

Going to college right after high school graduation is not right for all students.

From parents to other kids his age, I am fascinated with the variety of reactions we get when talking about his choice.  With the exception of a few people, we hear:  “Oh, well I am sure he will go to college eventually.”  “Wow, I’m surprised you allowed him to do that.” “Does he understand how important a college education is? He has to go to college!”  One of his friends asked me “Are you mad at him for doing that?”

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Not only was I NOT mad, I was thrilled. I encouraged it actually.

During senior year as he and his friends were going through the college application process I was blown away by the amount of pressure our kids are feeling about this next phase in their lives.  On some level I already knew it, but being in it with him and his friends and my friends was a whole different story.

Every conversation seemed to revolve around college and lived in the future.  “Where do you want to go to school?”  “What do you want to study?” “What do you want to do (for the rest of your life)?”  “Where have you applied?”  “What is your first choice?”

I can’t count how many times I heard kids say, “Well my dad thinks, or my mom thinks, or my college counselor thinks, I should…

When I asked  “What do you want?”  few kids actually had an answer.  “I really don’t know.” was the most popular reply. And my son was deeply in the “I don’t really know what I want.” camp. And he was feeling the pressure from everyone around him to “know.”  What was true for him was that he still had so many questions about who he was, what he wants in life and what kind of college experience he wants to have. He was feeling the pressure to know what he wanted for the rest of his life and by the way, possibly take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt figuring it out.

Most people told him that college is all about finding those answers.  And while I believe that is true, I also believe it is not the only path.

Is it possible that going right to college after High School is NOT the right answer for all kids?

In my experience we have become a college-obsessed culture. Much to my surprise, this started when looking for preschools for my son.  I’d hear comments like, “Well, this school has a great track to __________ fill in the blank elite college.  I thought it was kind of funny back then, but as he moved into lower school, middle school and high school those conversations only got louder and more frequent. The pressure to get it right, set your kids up for success and prepare them for a bright future began to feel like a competitive dog show, frankly.

Early on I began to question the whole thing for myself. And last year as I watched my son struggle to find the right answer for himself, the inquiry became even more important.  So I planted the gap year seed in him.  He was not biting. He was simply not available to hear me with all the pressure from teachers, and college counselors, other parents, family, friends and even his dad about college and next steps. No one saw any other option other than college for him.

After prom, gradation and all the festivities died down he began to get curious about gap years and within a week he came home and told me of his decision to defer to his college choice and take a gap year.  He realized he wanted some time to get clarity and get to know himself before investing in college. Coming to this decision was not an easy or popular choice for him to make.  Few if anyone supported it and most people tried to talk him out of it.  Regardless, in a flash he was on the phone with his gap year counselor exploring options and planning the next year of his life.  He was animated, excited and so was I. And we were both scared.

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This was not the “normal” path. “What if” rolled around in both our heads. We both questioned the decision over and over throughout the summer.  And come mid-August, he really began to question himself as his friends were moving into college, snap chatting from parties and moving on in their lives.  I too could feel myself envying all my friends moving their sons/daughters into their dorms and missing that experience for myself.  The closer we got to his leaving, the more I could feel my fears rising up.  What if he is wrong? What if this is the wrong choice?

After just two weeks and numerous texts and snap chats from his experiences so far, I feel confidant he made the right choice.  From 6,599 miles away I could feel him truly alive, lit up and excited for the first time in a long time. I can feel his preschool curiosity about the world and how he fits into it rise up again and feel his mind opening in ways one cannot experience in a textbook or the movies. I see his eyes being opened and his mind expanding through his experience of the world around him. I find myself excited about the next 11 weeks for him and I know it will not all be roses.

In this now moment, the truth is, I only know one thing for sure.  “We don’t really KNOW anything for sure!”  Although we all seem to believe it, there is no ONE right answer for everyone.  I know many kids who have moved into their dorms, joined clubs and fraternities and love college life. While some kids are in exactly the right place, many are not.

What if?

I cannot help but wonder however, if parents began to ask the question. “Should my kid go to college right after high school?”  What if we all began to question the path we have created for our kids?  What if it wasn’t about what college they were going to go?  What if our children had options and choices and what if going right to college out of high school was just one of those options?  What if our kids got to wonder about their options and truly CHOOSE to go to college or not?  What if we didn’t believe that our kids should go right to college or college at all?  I wonder what might occur? I wonder who our kids might become?

When I asked myself “Is it possible that not going right to college is right for him right now and challenge the truth of that, my heart and head says YES.

[Read Next: The Problem With Your Kid’s “Dream School”]

In my son’s case, I believe taking a gap year will allow him the space he needs to discover what lights him up and I trust following that will never lead him astray. I believe following his passions will lead to great gifts and success beyond anything I can imagine for him.

When we question our long-held rigid and righteous believes we expand in countless ways and open to a host of possibilities and I suspect our kids will too.

What might the opposite of your story look like?

Related: 

What Made Me Cry. Hint: It’s Not Just Graduation

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Annmarie Chereso is an educational leadership coach, parenting coach and student mentor. She is the founder of BringIt!Home, an organization devoted to supporting student well-being as a means to reach their full potential. Annmarie is passionate about waking students up to their inherent genius so they may be aligned with their deepest purpose through their passions. Annmarie teaches mindfulness and conscious leadership to educators, students and parents.
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