Your Teen’s Not Going to College? 8 Ways to Come To Term With Feelings of Loss

The big box stores are decked out with dorm room essentials, everything from bed linens to closet organizers to mini fridges. Even the grocery stores have their back-to-school sections with shelves and kiosks filled with notebooks, binders, and pens.

On social media parenting sites, the high school graduation pictures have now been replaced by photos of college-bound kids in their official university tees and sweatshirts. Parents are alternately beaming about Jason’s scholarships and bemoaning that Chelsea didn’t get into her first-choice school.

Some moms dread facing an empty nest, while others are losing sleep about how far their kids will be from home and worry whether they’ll get along with their roommates. Mothers trade tips on how often to send “care packages” and debate whether freshman should have cars on campus.

It seems everywhere you look this month it’s all about school, and for those of a certain age, it’s specifically about college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 70 percent of U.S. high school grads went straight to college in 2016 (more recent numbers aren’t yet available). But what if your kid isn’t going to college?

teen girl on dock
Not every teen wants to go to college. (Twenty20 @annaelisabethsmith)

Eighteen-year-olds and their families make decisions for all sorts of reasons, and I’m not talking about those who are privileged enough to avail themselves of a gap year. (Data from the American Gap Association shows nearly two-thirds of students taking a gap year report family incomes of more than $100,000; the group also says 84 percent of gappers are white.)

If your child has opted out of a college education and you are perfectly okay with it, I applaud you. But many of us experience a sense of loss or disappointment either because a child decides college isn’t for them, or circumstances like finances or health make higher education unmanageable and unrealistic.

My youngest didn’t go to college straight from high school. Eventually she took some community college classes then enrolled part time in our state university. In the end, though, my daughter decided it just wasn’t for her.

She is extremely bright, an identified gifted student, in fact, but she struggled throughout high school with severe anxiety and depression. A couple of months before graduation she dropped out and opted for a GED. It took me quite a while to make peace with the fact that a college degree was not part of her journey. Education is extremely important in our family. My parents and husband all had advanced degrees and our son was going to law school.

I spent a couple of years feeling sad whenever friends posted graduation photos and pics of their kids moving into the dorm in their university sweats. Now, I don’t. Like so many things in life, it really does get better. I had to accept that my daughter is on her own path and that pressuring her to do things my way really isn’t healthy for either one of us.

8 Tips When Your Teen Chooses NOT to Go to College

  1. Stay off social media! Just like so many Europeans take their vacations in August, take a holiday from Facebook and Instagram where people curate life’s highlights and sugarcoat their kids’ accomplishments. I had to take a Facebook break because every time I logged on, a dad in our neighborhood was messaging me with a graduation day countdown.
  2. Focus on your son’s or daughter’s strengths and encourage them to pursue their passions. In our home, that passion was music and, as a songwriter and performer, it is still the driving force in my daughter’s life.
  3. If you’re a wanna-be Joanna Gaines whose child won’t be moving into a dorm room with a roommate she’s been madly texting to coordinate bedding and dorm room décor, perhaps the two of you could collaborate on a redecorating project in your home. It didn’t happen right away, but my daughter and I did a bright, contemporary update of her childhood bedroom.
  4. Try to avoid comparing your kid to his or her peers. Everyone is different and, even though we want our children to succeed, traditional schooling isn’t for everyone. Trying to fit square pegs into round holes only leads to frustration. It took me a long time to accept this. A good mantra, often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is “comparison is the thief of joy.”
  5. Remember that your child may change his or her mind down the road. A choice against college now is not necessarily a forever decision. My mom was in her forties when she got her bachelor’s degree; then there was no stopping her!
  6. Get a life. That’s what my therapist urged me to do. I had to make a conscious effort to stop obsessing about my daughter’s choices, pursue my own passions, and practice radical self-care. That can look like anything you want it to. For me it meant prayer and meditation, recommitting to my writing and my own health, getting regular massages, long walks with the dog, and connecting with good, supportive friends.
  7. Finally, be forgiving of yourself when you slip up and have moments of regret or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and let your kid know you love him or her no matter what. College student or not, they still need a safe place to land.
  8. A family counselor once said to me, “The best thing you can do for your daughter is to let her know you have confidence in her ability to make her own decisions.” She’s in her twenties now, so despite the occasional longing to suggest she give college another go, I keep my mouth shut and trust that she’s got her own life under control.

You’ll Also Enjoy Reading:

Four Gap Year Facts Parents Need to Know

Grown and Flown: The Book

Mary Novaria is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Woman’s Day, Redbook and other print and online publications. She writes about family, friendship and everyday life on her blog A Work in Progress at, and was a contributor to the Amazon bestseller So Glad They Told Me, Women Get Real About Motherhood (HerStories Press, 2016).

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