Does My Teen Need to Go to College to Be Successful?

Getting a sense of direction

The 7 Year Adventure encourages positivity and enjoyment of all aspects of the process of raising teenagers. A huge part of that process includes helping them wade through the thousands of possibilities for career and life path choices that lie ahead of them. No small task, indeed.

I had a conversation recently with a woman I met at a conference. She and I were nearly the same age, and we both suffered from a similar affliction.

Neither of us wants to do what we went to college to do.

Why is that? Don’t we have this burning desire to be something all throughout our lives that starts when we are little kids and continues on forever more?

NO!!! Again I say, No! Did you get that? No!

This woman, I’ll call her Joan, and I both agreed that it is very difficult, nigh impossible even, to know when you are 16, 17 or 18 years old what you will want to be doing at age 40 or 50. Or even 30. Teens just don’t have that kind of foresight yet. It’s not because they aren’t smart. On the contrary. They are extremely smart and astute. They just haven’t done enough living yet to successfully make a decision like that.

I know it’s important for teens to be figuring out what they want to do, but I’ve known a number of teens who were terrified at the thought of having to choose their life’s work at this stage. It can be overwhelming for them to commit to something so early, and yet they are forced to choose.

Reassure them that it’s okay not to be sure yet of what they are destined to become. It’s completely normal for young people to struggle with this decision. And let them know that they probably will not be doing the same thing all their lives. It’s okay to make a course correction or two later if they need to.

In a previous article, Why Teens Should Avoid Student Loan Debt Like the Plague, I discussed the perils and pitfalls of taking on massive student loan debt to pay for a college education that will not begin to pay a return on the investment needed to obtain it.

So what if they go into debt, spend years obtaining an education, and then decide that major, or the job it leads to, was not for them after all?

This happens time and time again. Even medical professionals and attorneys have this problem, only their problems have zeros on the end of the zeros. It’s not uncommon at all to hear of doctors and lawyers having over $400,000 in student loan debt, which is more than 12 times higher than the national average student loan debt of $31,000 (according to Consumer Reports magazine, August, 2016).

Fortunately, they have, as Dave Ramsey puts it, a big shovel. But will they want to use that shovel for as long as they will need to in order to pay off that debt? Some will, but many will not.

So how can we help teens figure out a better way than winding up with a college degree that they may be unlikely to use later on, and that may require them to take on back-breaking debt?

Stop insisting on college, for starters. And stop dangling expensive private or ivy-league college educations in front of their eyes as if that is the end-all solution to their finding happiness and fulfillment in life. We have to begin to at least entertain the thought that there might be something else out there that teens and young adults can do to earn money that does not require them to sell their souls for a college education.

To be honest, for a long time I had a real problem grasping and embracing the notion of my teen bypassing college. It’s a tough one to swallow.

I went to college, as did my husband, our two older kids, and both my parents. All of us have graduated, except one, and he is on a firm track to graduate soon. Our family is steeped in going to college. When my current teenager, my third child, first mentioned to me that she might not want to go to college, I was not on board with that at all. I told my mother what my daughter had said, and she gasped.

But the more I consider my daughter’s point of view, and the more I study and consider the return on investment if she does go to college without enough scholarship money to cover the cost, the more I am inclined to think there might be other ways.

Here are some ways for teens to figure out their next steps:

  • Take a gap year to figure things out

Taking a gap year, while working a job or two, of course (they have to eat), is one way for them to get out into the world and get some experience. They can earn money while learning the ropes in how to deal with bosses and coworkers.

It would also be good if they could get a job associated with their area of interest, if they have one, before they do the deep dive into a career they don’t really know about. It could save some back-pedaling and disappointment down the road.

  • Show them what kinds of jobs people are doing

Exposing them to a variety of jobs and vocations and providing them with information about those jobs while they are still in middle school and high school is another way to educate them on the types of careers that are available.

Some careers are so unusual and specialized, they may not be on the lists the students see at school or on a roster of college majors. I have encountered jobs that made me say, “Wow!” I had no idea anyone did that, or that there was even a need for that.”

For example, I learned recently of a man who bypassed college in favor of working in his own business. He loves music and working with bands. He gets paid quite well to be the person who sets up stages and sound equipment for large events. He designs and plans how to put it all together so the bands sound amazing and the event is a success. I never even thought about that. It combines a person’s love for music and technology into a rewarding vocation. And did I mention it pays very well? Yes, I think so, and no college degree required. There are many other examples you can find, too, just by talking with people.

  • Attend conferences and training events, and do online courses

Attending conferences and doing online education should not be written off. Those are viable and even affordable ways to obtain continuing education. In a recent Exceptional Teen Feature, Andrew, the young entrepreneur who was interviewed, stated his intent to educate himself in this manner.

Experiencing a few short educational sessions in some focus areas can spark your teen’s imagination. He could apply those areas to his own interests, and begin to formulate his plans.

Maybe college is the way to go.

Perhaps college is definitely what your teen wants to do. Going into their college time with open eyes, a solid plan for the job they want to get, and a financial strategy designed to keep them out of debt is the best way to approach college degree aspirations.

Be sure they have a pretty good handle on what they want to do with that very expensive degree. And they should try to get as much of that degree as possible paid for with free money. (I.E. Scholarships and grants. Again, refer to the article Why Teens Should Avoid Student Loan Debt Like the Plague.)

What I’m suggesting is a complete and thorough overhaul of our basic beliefs and thinking modes when it comes to what teens should do after high school. I am right in the middle of this whole quandary with other parents who are struggling with how to help their teens carve out their niche in life.

Are you dealing with this situation in your family? Is your teen searching for his or her calling in life and finding it difficult to zero in on what the next step should be? If so, please share your thoughts and advice in the comment section below. I want to hear some feedback on this topic.

Thanks, and as always,


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Does My Teen Need to Go to College to Be Successful?

  1. This is a good article Anna. One thing I thought of might be appropriate to consider is for the teen to do volunteer work in various types of work. Often that might cause a teen to consider work that they had not thought of.

    • Thanks so much for validating, Kate. I know it’s possible. I’ve known people who do it. And I’ve known people who are successful at careers having nothing to do with their degrees. It can be scary for some to venture into this territory, but it has to be at least considered. I appreciate your comment.