What to Say (and Not to Say) to Parents Whose Teens Are Not College Bound

As a former high school teacher, I looked forward to graduation season during my years in the classroom. It was delightful to see my students honoring their accomplishments and peering hopefully into the shiny future.  I loved the pomp and circumstance, the tassels, the nervous laughter, the dressed-up students, the proud families, and the pulsing momentum of the future.

For many, but not all, high school graduation is a simultaneous celebration of membership into the elite ranks of collegiate inclusion. Soon after the stage is crossed and the tassel is turned, graduates are moving on to boxy dorm rooms and costly meal plans.

Amidst graduation parties and college move in days, there are parents whose children were expected to go to college but aren’t. Graduation season can be isolating for parents whose children are not attending college for whatever reason, and there are many reasons. Some are spoken, some are not.

teen and mom
My son has always been my teacher.

My Son is My Teacher

When my son graduated from high school, it was indeed a celebratory day. There were times throughout his high school career when I wasn’t sure (ahem– I was convinced) that he wouldn’t make it to graduation.

He hated school. He is a free spirit, cunningly smart, creative, and rule resistant. High school was a miserable experience for him. This was hard for me. I loved high school. I loved teaching high school. However, my son has repeatedly taught me, that he is not me. Our experiences were never meant to be the same.

I was 18 when I found out I was pregnant with him, my greatest, tiniest teacher. Even though I was young, I was particularly careful and strategic in creating a life for him that enabled him to have every opportunity to be successful.

I had a little problem though. I had a very finite definition of what HIS success should look like: be a star athlete, join every club, study abroad, make stellar grades, and GO TO COLLEGE! I was deeply hurt that he didn’t need for his success to match the one that I defined for him. It hurt to let go of correlating being a good mother to having a stack of college acceptance letters. I thought I would be absolved from the stigma of being a teen mom if my son could fit into a pre-determined mold that I made for him.

I was disappointed that he decided not to go to college. He didn’t even consider it ever, not seriously. He did a one-day stint in community college, which confirmed his severe disdain of formal education. In many ways, I felt like a failure. I also felt shame and disappointment. I was angry. Education is critically important to me and my husband. We are both first generation college grads, and both went on to earn advanced degrees. Education was our ticket.

I longed to take him to visit colleges and to attend parent weekends. I missed not buying an “I’m a UNC Chapel Hill Mom” sweatshirt and matching bumper sticker. I grieved for his missed opportunity to stabilize and enlighten his life. I still worry about his future and how he will support himself. The rationalist in me is partial to a college degree; the realist in me knows that one is not necessary to be happy and healthy. Depending on the day, I vacillate between my grief of unrealized expectation and joy from honoring my son for who he is.

My son is my greatest teacher. He is teaching me about living a life that is set to his own drumbeat and not the one that thrums in my head. He is joyful in his life in a way that he never was when he was in a formal learning environment. He is carefree with his life and time in ways that I have never been relaxed enough to enjoy.

It isn’t easy to dismiss expectation and face reality much less celebrate it. I found that I had to for my son’s sake and for the long-term health of our relationship. It might have been easier with more support and less judgement. If you find yourself talking to a mom like me, here’s some advice!

What to Do and Say to Parents of Kids who Aren’t Attending College

  1. Don’t assume every kid is going to college. DO ASK what young Johnny is doing after high school.
  2. Don’t downplay your child’s plans and achievements. Your kid worked hard and kicked ass. Good for her! It feels condescending when you don’t celebrate your kid because my kid is different. DO know when you’ve said enough. DO note what my kid does well: works, skateboards, thinks, and talks easily with adults.
  3. Don’t look like you are going to cry. This is not the end of the world. There are a good many possibilities for someone who thinks, acts, and lives differently. Really cool ones. DO ask what he is interested in or what he cares about.
  4. Don’t say you’re sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry for. A college degree is not a guarantee of anything really. Expect maybe debt and a hangover. DO show genuine interest in the answer to numbers one and three.
  5. Don’t say, “Oh, maybe they will go next year.” In most cases, they won’t, and that’s still Our kids are enough as they are. They don’t need to do anything or achieve something to be worthy. DO celebrate my kid with me because he just is.

You Might Also Enjoy Reading: 

When My Son Didn’t Go to College, I Fell Like a Failure 

My Son Did High School HIS Way and I Had to Get Over It


About Tara Ashcraft

Tara Cargle Ashcraft, MSEC is a working mom not balancing anything at all. She writes about her work, marriage, and kids (birth, bonus & foster) ranging in ages from 19-2. Her work has helped me become an expert in learning, coaching, and human development. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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