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My Kid Doesn't Want to Go to College

So you always assumed your child would go to college. Since he was old enough to talk, he debated anyone he could and dreamed of being a lawyer. You set aside funds in a special high-interest bank account. You played over the day in your mind when you’d pack him up in the car, drive him to school, and leave him with a dorm room full of new sheets, reading lamps and hotplate-safe cooking goods.

But what if the dream takes a detour, and for whatever reason, Matt one day announces to you that he is, in fact, not planning on going to college—and no, you can't convince him otherwise?

If you’ve had your heart set on your child earning a degree, the absolute wrong thing to do is freak out when he announces his alternate plan.

Like any other time Plan A doesn’t pan out, it’s time to make some decisions. Will you give him a pass and let him stay at home? Will you send him on his way so he has to get a job and support himself? Or will you negotiate some kind of compromise?

If you’ve had your heart set on your child earning a degree, the absolute wrong thing to do is freak out when he announces his alternate plan, says Marilyn Belleghem, a marriage and family therapist based in Canada. She advises asking a series of questions instead. “This is a time for serious communication, not a tirade about your expectations. The more you ask questions, the more the energy moves to your brain, away from the first gut reaction.”

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Even if you’re sure college is the best path for your child, Belleghem says, “Your child is in the stage of development where they need to make choices and accept the consequences of the choices. They must feel they have made the choice to go to college and they are not being sent off like an obedient child, or the consequences will be a great loss of time and money.”

One thing to clarify is why your child’s college career is so important to you. Do you want him to follow in the family business, or did you have a harder road by not getting a degree? “Being clear about your expectations and listening to your child's reasons will help you know ways to support the final decision," she adds. "All students have heard the message about the importance of education many, many times by this stage in the process.”

Belleghem suggests calmly sitting down with your child and asking the following questions:

• How long have you been thinking this way?

• Why have you decided this?

• Who have you talked to about this?

• Is this connected to your boyfriend/girlfriend?

• Do you have any fears about being away from home?

• What would you do instead?

• Do you think it is the program or college in general?

• Are you afraid to leave home?

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“If you have trouble speaking like this to your child, ask a qualified therapist to help with the decision-making process,” she says.

New Jersey-based psychotherapist Tom Kerstig suggests taking a tactical approach: Show your child statistics for earning power of people with a formal education and how college helps to develop a profession he can be passionate about.

Each family’s dynamic is a little different, he adds. “As a parent you need to respect what your child’s wishes are, but you can’t give in. Try to encourage them and shed light on the importance of getting an education.”

And if the answer is still “I’m not going,” a little toughening of the rules and setting boundaries can make the difference between a couch zombie and a productive adult, says Kersting.

If a child wants to stay home and not go to school, Kersting says, it’s time to set some ground rules. Will the child pay rent if he’s working but not in school? Does he need to have some kind of job? How much hanging out in front of the TV is acceptable? Whatever the arrangement you make, if you don’t communicate your expectations and then follow up with consequences, you might end up with a 25-year-old still living at home, going nowhere.

“Parents are going to have to step up to the plate and get a little firmer with kids,” he says. “As a parent you can’t keep bailing your kid out and enabling them to do what they’re doing.”

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