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Coping when your kid cancels college

What should you do if your teenager doesn't want to go to college? Linda Lee strongly suggests that you listen to him.

Lee went $48,000 in debt to send her son Evan to a private four-year college in Rochester, N.Y., for just two years, even though his high school guidance counselor advised against it.

"I thought they were completely wrong," Lee admits. "I thought they were not understanding my son, who I knew was bright. It's a very hard thing for a parent to hear."

Now she wishes she'd listened.

"I was pretty shocked at how deeply I got in debt trying to give him an experience I wanted for him that was not at all the experience that he was there for. I was in total denial about what my son was ready for because we want what's best for our children, and it is very hard to face that what's best is something other than what you would do for yourself.

"You begin to feel like a chump as a parent," adds Lee, a New York Times reporter and author of Success Without College. "You're stuck having to pay for something you do not think is working and they're having a great time. After two years, I said that's it, you are now going to work for at least a year and after that, you can reapply to the bank of mom."

Lee is part of the baby-boom generation for whom college was not only affordable, but de rigueur. Many of her generation were the first in their families to earn a college degree, which was seen as the ticket out of a blue-collar past into a white-collar future. Conventional wisdom held that the sheer size of the baby boom dictated that you would need a bachelor's degree just to compete.

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That's not necessarily the case now. So rather than sentence Junior to four years in college, experts now urge parents to at least consider Plan B, any of a growing number of post high school alternatives that could be far more beneficial to your child and far easier on your pocketbook.

Ending diploma dependency
Granted, college is a great place for anyone with a love of learning, solid study habits and a desire to encounter people and ideas from different cultures and disciplines.

But according to Harlow Unger, author of But What If I Don't Want to Go to College? A Guide to Success Through Alternative Education, that profile doesn't exactly fit the average college student today.

"The ethos in America today is that every kid has got to go to college. The disgraceful fact of the matter is that about 50 percent of all the kids who go to college drop out," he says. "Clearly, they don't belong in college, either because they don't want to go to college, they have no interest in it, or their aptitudes are just not those that are appropriate for a college education."

Unger says the unrealistic expectations of many parents have created a lose-lose scenario.

"It is not only leading to an incredible number of stories of failure for these kids who go to college and then drop out, it also is sending the costs of college education through the roof. All these colleges have to be ready to accept the freshman enrollment, spending the same amount of money on each kid and then half of them drop out. It's a national tragedy, both for the kids involved and for the entire higher-education system."

No degree, no problem
On the bright side, there has never been a better time to not go to college, at least until a young person figures out where they're headed.

"The fact is, most jobs in America don't require a college education," says Unger. "It is certainly not required to earn a very, very comfortable, and indeed at times exceptional, living."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's 2002-2003 Occupational Outlook Handbook, occupations requiring an associate's (or two-year) degree are expected to increase 32 percent through 2010, greater than any other educational sector. Almost two-thirds of all projected job openings (37.3 million of a projected 57.9 million) will require only on-the-job training, mostly in lower-paid service positions, but also in professions such as health care.

"The thing to keep in mind is there are something like 50 million jobs out there that don't require a bachelor's degree and pay upwards of $40,000 or more a year," says Unger.

"They do require skills though. The thing is to find a training program or an educational program that will give you those skills, and not to just drift along, drop out of college and suddenly have neither the college degree nor occupational skills."

Still think your child will end up a loser without a sheepskin? Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Harry S. Truman and William Faulkner would beg to differ. Or better yet, call college dropout Bill Gates. Collect.

(continued on next page)
-- Posted: May 6, 2003
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