What to Do If Your Teen Doesn’t Want to Go to College

mother-and-teen-sonHave you always assumed that your child would go to college? It can come as quite a shock to hear your teen say, “I don’t think I want to go to college.” Perhaps you didn’t go to college, and you hope for something better for your son or daughter – it may feel frustrating that your child would choose to miss out on such a wonderful opportunity. Or, maybe you have a college degree, and you simply expected the same for your child. Perhaps you have dreams of what your teen will do as a career, or you feel certain their future will be better with a college education. Maybe you even feel a little betrayed by your child’s choice when you have worked hard to set aside money for college.

Many parents feel a lot of strong emotions if their teen announces that they plan to skip post-secondary education. Here’s a guide to how you can handle this situation:

Take a Deep Breath

Do not freak out or launch into a tirade of your expectations. Before opening your mouth, get a handle on the emotions you are feeling. Take a moment to identify what you are feeling and why you are having those feelings. Consider why college is so important to you. What are your fears? Don’t give into your first gut reaction; instead, ask yourself questions about your feelings so that you can think more logically.

Listen to Your Teen’s Point of View

It will be so tempting to lecture your teen about the importance of education, but they have already heard that message at home and at school. If you focus on trying to convince your teen to see your point of view, it will discourage them from talking to you. The very best thing you can do is actively listen to your teen’s point of view, and keep your opinions to yourself. Truly listen to understand your teen, and then ask lots of questions and show curiosity (without judgment) about their answers.

Questions you might want to ask your teen are:

  • How long have you been thinking about not going to college?
  • Have you discussed this idea with anyone else?
  • What factors helped you make this decision?
  • What do you think would happen if you did go to college? What are you imagining the college experience to be like?
  • What are you thinking you’d like to do instead?
  • Are you wanting to stay home to be near friends (or a girlfriend/boyfriend)?
  • Do you have any fears about being away from home or doing something new?

Make sure that as they answer your questions, you validate your teen’s feelings. Before you give any of your own thoughts, you should make sure you understand their point of view, and express empathy. If your teen is struggling to make a decision, a story or two about a tough choice you had to make could be comforting. Once your teen feels heard, they will be much more open to listening to your concerns or advice. At that point, you may be able to assist your teen in problem-solving some of your their concerns. For example, if your teen is feeling anxious to leave home, discuss some alternatives. Going to a school that’s close to home or taking online classes could be an option that could ease your teen into college.

Do Not Try to Force College

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only 46% of Americans complete college once they start. The sad fact is that your teen will likely not graduate if they are forced into attending college, which will only waste time and money and possibly cause resentment.

Discuss Other Alternatives

Instead of trying to convince your teen to attend college, talk about alternatives to college. Encourage your child to visit a career center or their guidance counselor to learn about their options, and help your teen gain an understanding of what types of opportunities are available. Help them think through the pros and cons of all their options. Here are some ideas:

  • Community college: Community colleges are a great option for teens who might need more time to mature, who are afraid to leave home, or who do not have the resources to pay for an expensive university. Community colleges are less expensive, local, and a great way to get some of the general course requirements out of the way. After two years at a community college, your teen may feel more ready to attend a college, and they will have completed two years of basic coursework so that they can focus on classes that fit their major. They also offer young adults a way of easing into college by simply taking a course or two, instead of going full-time.
  • Trade or other specialty school: Some teens choose not to go to college because what they want to do needs a different type of education. For example, if your teen wants to be a mechanic or a chef, there are wonderful vocational schools and programs to support their interest.
  • Internship: While most internships are unpaid, they provide an excellent way to explore career options, make contacts, and develop relationships with mentors. In a year’s time, your teen could possibly participate in two or three internships, helping them to define their true career goals. This is an excellent alternative for the student who simply doesn’t know what they want to pursue as a career.
  • Military service: Entering the military can be an excellent choice for a teen who isn’t sure what they want to do in the future. The military will teach a teen discipline, help them earn money, teach a trade, provide great benefits, and help them save for college and have access to grants, scholarships or other assistance for future educational programs.
  • Work: If your teen doesn’t feel ready for college, they might want to consider pursuing full- or part-time employment. A job will help your teen earn and save money, become more responsible, learn skills such as communication with co-workers, and gain valuable experience.
  • Other education or life experiences: For some teens, taking a “year off” after high school to travel or volunteer can be beneficial and provide them with valuable life experience. Many universities will even allow a deferred enrollment, when they apply and get accepted, but don’t attend until the following year. Your child could use this time to travel, do community service, or even live in a foreign country before the responsibilities of life make it harder to do so.


Establish Boundaries Regarding Living At Home

If your teen doesn’t want to attend college, but does want to continue living at home, you must talk about your expectations and take steps to help them become self-sufficient. Things you should discuss include:

  • charging your teen rent
  • ensuring your teen has clear goals for their future, even if those plans don’t involve going to college
  • requiring assistance in cooking, cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping for the home
  • expecting your teen to learn from you how to budget and pay bills
  • establishing rules on how much time they must spend working versus hanging out in front of the TV, etc.

Whatever arrangements you make, if you don’t communicate your expectations and follow through with consequences, you might end up with a 25-year-old still living at home, going nowhere.

Final Thoughts…

A teen’s announcement rejecting college can stir up sheer panic in many parents. One of the biggest fears for a parents is that their child won’t ever be able to have a successful career or that their teen will regret not going to college for the rest of their life. But, take a deep breath and recognize that it’s not the end of the world if your teen doesn’t attend college. They have other options into which you can guide them. Additionally, deciding not to attend college after graduation isn’t necessarily a final decision. They can start 6 months later, or even years later.

Even if you feel certain that college is the best path for your teen, forcing them into something will only set them up for failure and frustration, and can result in a great loss of time and money. Your teen is in the stage of development where they must make their own choices and accept the consequences. So, resist the temptation to lecture. Instead, use questions to help them think through all the possibilities and consequences of each choice and remain supportive of whatever decision they make, even if your teen keeps changing their mind. This is one of the most difficult transitions your child will ever make, and they need your positive influence to help them through it.


  • I love your message.
    thank you

  • My kids were all allowed to choose whether or not they wanted to go to college. College is not for everyone. Children have to find their way in life and very few know what the truly want to do with their lives at the age of 17 or 18. Taking time after high school, to get a job, and learn some responsibility is not a bad thing. Success is not determined by how much schooling you have. And being successful in life does not necessarily mean having the highest paying job out there. Success is found in knowing who you are, what you want and especially in serving and giving to the world around you. If they find a way to use the talents they have been blessed with to make a difference in the lives of others then they have been successful. Love your children for who they are not by what you want them to be.

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