The Path To Success Doesn’t Always Mean A Four Year Degree

The end of the high school year is “senior packet” time. It’s the beginning of the insanely stressful college application process for the rising senior class of which my son is a part. The packet consists of forms, a student self-description survey and the “parent brag sheet” in which the parents are supposed to note their child’s qualities, academic, leadership and service accomplishments.

I did this for his sister, four years ago. It wasn’t hard to do since she checked all the boxes. But, my son, my rising senior, is nothing like his sister. While he has many assets, including his creativity, outdoors skills, and work ethic, he’s never been one for school.

This isn’t terribly surprising since he’s battled significant learning differences, including non-verbal learning disability and ADHD, since he was three. Over the years, he has received many accommodations such as smaller classes, in class support from special education teachers, and additional time for testing, but none of them made him love school. For my son, school has been a place where he worked terribly hard, but he never saw much of a return in terms of grades for his efforts.

Success means something other than college for many young adults

For me, his advocate and champion, it was heart-wrenching. It also has made his search for a path after high school more challenging, particularly since we live in a suburban school district that is “rigorous,” “highly competitive,” and where conversations about “the college search” are relentless. I dodge them often.

According to the Wall Street Journal, for the last 30 years, conventional wisdom has been that a four-year college degree is essential to our children’s future success. My husband and I bought into the idea. By profession, I’m an attorney, but for most of my son’s life, I’ve been a freelance legal writer and editor. My husband is an accountant. Of course, we were predisposed to a four-year college for our children with strong, academic or business majors, so that they can have careers and lives of their own.

We began the college search last fall, going down the traditional path, looking at small schools in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with strong support for students with LDs. After each trip, we would ask our son whether he could see himself going to college there. He would reply that he wasn’t sure or didn’t know.

As our son slogged through junior year, our worry about whether he would be ready for college increased, particularly since the statistics aren’t promising. The Wall Street Journal article notes that, even as more students enroll in college, up to half of them never obtain a degree. Among those who do graduate, about one-third ultimately obtain jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. And, with the price tag of tuition today, this is not a decision that most families, including ours, can afford to screw up.

I had imagined that our son would major in history, which he’s always loved, and perhaps become a teacher, but that would require more school. He wasn’t interested. I also had thought that our son would consider a career in law since he loved his high school law seminars and did well in them. Yet, when I suggested pre-law as a possible major, he rejected that idea and told me that he would never work in an office.

I felt frustrated and guilty because I, his lifelong advocate, couldn’t help him plot a course at the time when it was most important. My husband, who is far more relaxed and patient than I, urged me to stay calm and reminded me that he hadn’t been a great student in high school, but figured it out and was successful.

Then, our son started taking a woodworking class, and everything changed. For the first time in his academic life, he loved a class. He started staying after school to work on his projects, including a simple bench, two cutting boards, and a small stool. He had no problem doing math in woods, even though math has been his greatest challenge all these years. He could see how math worked, and it made sense. His teacher suggested that perhaps our son change up his college search to gear it toward fine woodworking or carpentry programs.

When he came home from school and shared his teacher’s suggestion, his dad and I didn’t know what to say. So, we didn’t say anything. Instead, we listened to our son and let him guide us. We visited several schools with woodworking programs, some two-year, some four-year. We watched, as our son got excited about going to school. He was engaged on the tours. He asked questions about the woodworking programs, the types of projects that the students made, and future job opportunities.

He was entranced with the workshops and tools. After all of those dead-end conversations, he now expressed an interest about what he wanted to do after high school, and when we asked whether he could see himself going to these schools, his answer was a resounding, “yes.” We stopped trying to push him down a path that he was not meant to walk and let him guide us to the path he wanted to take.

Does this mean that I no longer worry about whether he’ll be able to navigate life after high school? No. I still worry and wonder whether a gap year might be worthwhile. For now, though, we can wait and see what senior year brings, in terms of his maturity and focus. For the first time in his academic life, our son sees a future, not one that we would have ever guessed, but one that will suit him well. That is something to brag about.

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After she survived breast cancer at 49, Christine Corrigan decided it was time do the thing she’d dreamed about. A freelance writer, she shares her experiences about living with cancer, motherhood, and family with wit and frankness. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three young adult and teenage children and devoted Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. When she’s not writing, she’s working in her garden, reading, cooking, or supporting other cancer patients. Her essays have been published by Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Wildfire Magazine, Purple Clover, Racked.com and on other websites. She is working on her first book, a memoir about her cancer experiences.

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