For most American teenagers, attending college is a rite of passage into adulthood, the automatic next step after high school. And this year, with more than 14 million undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, it’s evident that parents are just as adamant about their kids going off to college as the students themselves.
The reality, though, is that kids who lack the maturity, direction or focus before enrolling in a university only end up wasting time and money. And not everyone needs to go to college to be successful—just ask Bill Gates or any other uber-rich dropout. Here are three questions to ask before determining whether your child is ready to head off to college.
Number 1: Is he capable of (effectively) managing his money?
Even after tuition and books are covered, there are incidental costs that can add up quickly. When it comes time to pay for gas and car insurance, cell phone bills, or entertainment expenses, financially irresponsible students will be more likely to slip into the grips of predatory credit card companies or mismanage Mommy and Daddy’s money. “Even worse is a parent who shells out money for his or her kids without regard,” says Matthew Arrington, vice president and co-founder of Forte Strong, a company he dubs as “the world’s first and premier ‘failure to launch’ program for young adult men aged 18-30, who live at home and struggle with being independent.”
“Then, when the child has a degree and goes out into the workplace, they have no idea how to manage the money they will be earning,” Arrington adds. “The parents have effectively starved their children the opportunity to learn how to manage money for the last 4 years.”
If it seems as though there’s a lot of emphasis being placed on financial competence, with money management skills listed as the first factor to consider in your child’s college-readiness, that’s because there is. College graduates of the class of 2013 average a staggering $35,200 in student loan and credit card debt.
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Number 2: Does he have a long-term career plan?
What’s that you say? An 18- or 19-year-old can’t possibly know what he wants to do for the rest of his life at that age. That’s exactly the point.
Contrary to long-held notions that favored freshman and sophomore college students hanging around campuses as “undeclared majors,” spending up to $60,000 a year for your child to discover himself is probably not the best plan. Instead of heading to a university, your child may be better served by spending a year or two gaining real-world experience.
“A working gap year—in a job or through internships—allows recent high school graduates time for self-reflection and most importantly, life experience,” says Tim Elmore, founder/president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit dedicated to instilling leadership skills in young people. “The year, if spent intentionally, will give them the opportunity to uncover their strengths, weaknesses and passions before they commit to a four-year major. They might even decide that a traditional four-year college experience isn’t for them and, instead, choose a life path that is a better fit for their talents and passions.”
Number 3: Is he mature and confident enough to succeed in college?
While term papers and mid-term exam grades certainly play a large role in determining a student’s potential for college success, there are other less tangible factors to consider. Arlyn Lawrence, co-author of Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World, says “soft skills” like being a team player, making a great first impression and having strong personal discipline are just as important if a student’s college experience is not to be reduced to a big, fat waste of time. And often, she adds, those skills are developed through interactions with parents and other family members.
“The strength of [a child’s] familial support structure has a profound impact on their identity, confidence and sense of opportunity,” says Lawrence. “Parental factors such as their love and relationship status; depth of involvement in their children’s lives, education and financial status; maturity; and modeling all influence a child’s self-perception and sense of worth.”
Lawrence encourages parents to take an active role in their children’s process of self-discovery. She, along with her co-author Dennis Trittin, have developed a personal balance sheet to help parents identify and appreciate their child’s unique value and characteristics and determine the post-high school path that’s right for them. “During the teen years, there’s often a lot of doubt, fear, hurt, etc., being experienced in their lives, and all of these things [are happening] at a time when they’re supposed to be making rational life decisions for themselves,” says Lawrence. “How are they going to make these decisions if they have a warped and/or incomplete assessment of themselves?”
For parents who have planned for their child’s college graduation since before they were even in kindergarten, it can be challenging to adjust to the fact that college may not be right for their teenager—at least not right now. Ultimately, though, resisting the status quo and developing a personalized plan for—and with—their child is the best gift any parent can give.
“In a [College Board] study of 18 industrialized nations, the United States ranked ninth in college enrollment, but dead last in college completion,” Lawrence adds. “No doubt there are multiple factors explaining why that is, but a very likely one is that a large number of those students possibly shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”