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When your teenager's peers are headed to college, but he is not

Help your teen formulate post-high school plans so he won't feel awkward talking with family and friends who ask about his future.

By Melinda Sacks

Today's college-bound high school students face numerous milestones on their way to graduation; first there are PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), then come the SATs, the college tours, applications, recommendations, and finally letters of acceptance (or rejection). This is often an exciting albeit stressful period of time. But the fact is that college is not the best option for every teenager. Some teens will need to wait and do a little growing up before considering whether college is for them. Others may realize post-secondary education will never be their choice.  For teens with LD and attention issues, the question of whether and where to attend college can be even more complex.

So, what about the high school student who isn't headed to a four-year college, or in some cases, any college at all?  What should parents be aware of and how can they best support their teenagers? Watching peers make exciting plans for the future that don't reflect the plans of your son or daughter can be painful for the entire family. The experience can be particularly difficult in today's ultra-competitive environment of super-achieving kids.

For our son, Alex, now a junior in high school, following in his older sister's footsteps is not in the cards. While she was a star student who breezed through the toughest classes at the same time she was participating in athletics and theater, our son has struggled with the basic courses required for high school graduation. (These days just earning a high school diploma is daunting.)

Help your teen prepare a ready description of his post-graduation plans

It's bound to happen — a well-meaning neighbor, family member, or friend will ask, "So where do you want to go to college?" Or, "What score did you get on your PSAT?" Having an answer in mind ahead of time can help those not heading to college avoid feeling embarrassed or put on the spot. Here are some perfectly reasonable answers that work for many kids:

  • I'm taking some time off after high school to figure out what I want to do.
  • I'm going to work for a while and save up some money.
  • I'm going to take some classes at the local junior college. (Junior colleges don't require SATs for admission.)
  • I'm looking into alternatives and I'm not sure yet.

"Students aiming for college often begin making plans by their sophomore year in high school," notes Damon Korb, M.D., a behavioral and developmental pediatrician and director of the Center for Developing Minds who specializes in working with children with LD and social or developmental delays. "They set academic goals for themselves, choose a university and consider various paths of higher study. It is perhaps even more important that the non-college bound student has a plan. What will this student do after college, and what does he or she need to do to prepare for that event? Some may consider trade school. Others may travel or work. Regardless of their path, parents should work with their graduating student to help develop a realistic plan that covers expenses, health, and continuing development. If students invest their efforts in a future plan or direction, they can proudly announce their intentions when asked."