Waiting to go to college

Dec. 3, 2014

Today I want to celebrate one of my own. My middle child, a son, will graduate with a degree in geology in about two weeks. I like to bring him up because he did not take a traditional route through college, but one that led him to successfully complete his college requirements.

I have written about him before, but his story is worth repeating. He is smart and made good grades in high school, but struggled with focus and boredom due to his being attention deficit. Due to the fact that he had taken several IB and AP classes, by the end of his junior year, he had all he needed to graduate except for a one-semester government class. When he showed me his line-up of classes for his senior year, I got a bit worried. I have no problem with interest-specific classes, but when the entire schedule was made up of classes like photography and videography, I got a sinking feeling that he might find himself with too much time for getting into trouble—which he had already proven he was capable of doing.

It was me, not him, that suggested he finish high school early and go do something useful in the world. He was suspicious, but listened as I suggested Americorps or something similar. He countered with the idea of going out of the country to volunteer. We started looking into gap year programs, but ended up constructing one on our own through one of my husband’s work colleagues.

This middle child and his older brother—who took a semester off from college, where he was doing well—took off that January to volunteer with a small NGO in Peru. They both had some Spanish, but took an intensive language course in the country before finding their way to the small community in which they worked. It was a great experience for both of them as they had to figure out transportation and housing, as well as their work project on their own.

After their return, older brother returned to college and the younger sized up his options quickly. He knew the rules: if you are a full-time student, your college fund kicks in; if not, you’re on your own. When he insisted he would attend the local community college, all kinds of alarms went off. I knew it wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t want to scrounge for his own rent. His dad and I tried to talk him out of it, telling him if he wasn’t serious, he would be wasting his college fund—so, of course, that is what he did—waste his college fund. He made Cs when he was completely capable of As and took classes that didn’t go toward much when he finally did get serious about college.

Shortly into the second semester of community college, he came to me to proclaim I was right: He wasn’t ready for college. Instead he was heading to New Zealand. He saved a couple of thousand from his part-time job, and his dad and I told him to have a great time. Which he did. He worked when he needed enough money, traveled all over, met lots of people, made all his own decisions, and truly matured.

Ten months or so later, he returned broke, but happy with his adventures. He was forced to live at home for awhile due to lack of funds, and he took the first job he could get: selling high end vacuum cleaner and air filter systems. He actually was a good salesman, but hated the job. About three weeks into it, he came to us and said: “I’m ready for college.” And he was.

He started university the following fall, was a serious student, did well in his classes, loved his major of geology, and is now set to graduate in a couple of weeks—at age 25. I never doubted that he would eventually go to college, but I knew it needed to be on his own terms. That is something that many parents have a difficult time accepting, but accept it they should, as it never does any good to force a young person into college.

Education never has been a one-size fits all, and college is not the right path for every high school graduate, nor is going straight to college after high school. It can be a stop-start, much delayed, or a circular route getting there. But the student shouldn’t start until he or she is ready, willing, and able. That’s what it’s all about.

Congratulation Wes!!

Aug. 18, 2014

Today my middle kid boarded a plane to Honolulu to settle in and start his last semester of college. He is a geology student and although he has focused on hydrogeology, he has a keen interest in volcanoes—and where better to study volcanoes than Hawaii? This final semester—his semester abroad—is the end of a college career that started rocky, disappeared for awhile, but finally happened. When he decided he was ready for college, he became a serious student and has done very well.

Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—as the title implies—stresses that students need to be ready, willing, and able to be successful in college. That sometimes means the student’s timetable is not the same as his or her parents. The important thing is not to force a student into college if he is not ready. I think I judged well on my son that I kissed goodbye today.

He had his share of trouble during high school, but being clever, intelligent, and charming he made his way through—a favorite with friends and teachers alike. However, he did get in trouble, oftentimes because he was bored. As his junior year wound down, he had already finished, and gone beyond, all requirements for graduation, save a one-semester government class. For his senior year, he proposed several “interesting,” but not challenging courses. He saw it as a year to have fun and coast; I saw it as prime opportunity to find trouble.

I suggested he finish his senior year mid-term and then do something useful and unusual. At first he was skeptical of my motives, but he eventually came around, but insisted he wanted to leave the country. Thanks to his dad’s connections, we were able to set up an internship for him and his older already-in-college brother with a non-governmental organization working in Peru. They both had a great experience and returned home about two days before graduation ceremonies.

Once home and graduated, he needed a plan. He knew our rule—we offered room, board, and tuition for full-time college students; we offered no financial support for other choices. He proclaimed he would attend the local community college and live with three other friends. I knew he wasn’t ready and tried to persuade him to just get a job and work awhile, but I couldn’t sway him. He went to class, hated it, did okay, and played hard. Toward the end of the second semester, he announced that I was, in fact, right, he didn’t really want to do college at that point. “I’m going to New Zealand,” he said. “Have a good time,” was our response.

And he did. He had a great time, worked when he needed money, played when he had it, and learned a lot about himself. After about nine months, he returned home, broke and needing a job quick. He took the first thing that came along—selling high-end vacuums and air-filtration systems. He turned out to be a good salesman, but hated every minute of it. Two weeks into the job, he announced he was ready for college.

The rest is history. He figured out the best study methods for himself, honestly told us that he knew he couldn’t work and do well in college, and made college his job. He had an internship this summer that paid well, provided him new beneficial experiences, and expanded his networks. He is hoping to network in Hawaii and land a volcano-related internship there. On the way to the airport he told me, “Who knows, maybe I can go to graduate school and focus on volcanology.”

His ticket was one-way to Hawaii—one way to the end of a successful college career, and beginning of the next stage—all on his own timetable.

April 30, 2014

I admit, I get exasperated every time I read another article that basically states the same ideas readers can find in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Neither my book nor I am a big enough name to be noticed by the “well-knowns,” and so I report when their blogs, articles, books, affirm Toward College Success.

Nancy Flanagan, a regular blogger for Education Today, recently wrote a piece titled: “College-Ready?” While she does discuss what makes a student “college ready,” she first challenges the idea that going to college, picking a college, and picking a career mostly should be based on rate of return. I completely agree. Not long ago, I wrote about the value of learning for learning sake, the value of stretching one’s cognitive abilities, the value of studying and discussing challenging and diverse subjects. Flanagan states that the primary trajectory toward college is: “1) Being college ready. 2) Being successful in college (completing a degree program, admission to the next level). 3) Using those degrees to leverage more money and prestige.”

If that is what a student wants for her life, then good for her. Hopefully she has the drive, the maturity, and all the skills to make it happen. But, of course, there are other paths to a fulfilling and successful life—vocations, certifications, apprenticeships, military—but these often carry the stigma that these paths are not as lucrative or fulfilling—two terms that should be defined by personal interests, goals, and priorities, not by the world at large.

Flanagan writes: “What do we expect to get out of a college degree? It’s very rare to hear policymakers or thought leaders talk about depth of disciplinary knowledge, exposure to diverse viewpoints and the art of argument, guidance in learning to create or solve problems–or lead. Instead, we get lifetime salary estimates as payoff for slogging our way to a credential. Nobody talks about personal satisfaction or the benefits of an educated populace.”


As for college readiness, Flanagan says that being college ready is having the “self awareness” to wisely choose a field of study and having a clear purpose for going. To be successful in college, Flanagan says, takes maturity, something she doubts many freshly graduated high school students possess. So what does she suggest? One is to take a gap year if you can find one that you can afford.


But mostly she suggests getting out and living. “Get a Joe job. Move out and live independently, or with roommates. Pay your own utility bills. Sponge off your parents for home-cooked leftovers and access to the washing machine. Travel to places you’ve never been. Think about how you’d like to live, as an adult. Dream. Read. Make mistakes.”


Great advice—found in Toward College Success as well. After such an exploration, maybe that student will decide it’s time for college.


To read Flanagan’s article: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2014/04/college_ready.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS3


March 5, 2014

Last night, after I gave a presentation at a local school, a father asked if there was a book or website or something that listed all of the alternatives to going straight to college after high school. I had just finished describing some, but he proceeded to tell me about an apprenticeship program that I did not know. The Registered Apprenticeship program, structured and monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), brings together people seeking work with businesses seeking workers through a paid apprenticeship. When I took a closer look, I couldn’t help but think what a great option this is for those who do not want to go to college straight out of high school or even at all.

According to the Labor Department’s website, the Registered Apprenticeship program “is a unique, flexible training system that combines job related technical instruction with structured on-the-job learning experiences…It provides the opportunity for workers seeking high-skilled, high- paying jobs and for employers seeking to build a qualified workforce.”

The way I understand it is that businesses seeking people to train in their industry post open apprenticeship opportunities on the ETA website. The website explains who is eligible to apply and how to apply, and what the applicant can expect. Those accepted into apprenticeships immediately start earning a salary as they work and learn along the way. Salaries increase as skill level increases. The apprenticeships range from one to six years, with four years being the most common. And while construction and manufacturing industries are the most common businesses that use the Registered Apprenticeship program, applicants also can find openings in health care, energy, law enforcement, auto mechanics, telecommunications, food service, and more.

According to the website, the benefits to applicants include: improved skills and competencies, incremental wage increases as skills improve, on-the-job training, career advancement, industry issued and nationally recognized credentials, and articulation agreements “between certain apprenticeship training programs and 2- and 4-year colleges that create opportunities for college credit and future degrees.”


That last benefit is particularly appealing. Not only do these apprentices start right off earning a salary while learning a trade, there is opportunity to go to college at a later date if the apprentice so desires. And some of the employers will partially or fully fund that education.


I think this is a great program—one that is appealing to wide a range of high school graduates: from those who want to earn money right away and gain valuable training along the way, to those for whom college is simply too expensive.


If you have a student who could benefit from this program, definitely check it out. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? says: college right after high school is not the right path for every student. And the role of parents is to help their child find the path to success—no matter what path he or she chooses.


To see what apprenticeships are available in your area, go to: http://www.doleta.gov/OA. Scroll down to Registered Apprenticeship Program Sponsor Database, then put in your state and county.

Dec. 4, 2013

Although Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? is about preparing your teenager for a successful college experience, one of the significant points in the book is that going to college right after high school is not the right path for every student.  That point becomes clearer to me every time I read or hear a story like the one that was aired on NPR last week. The story, by Rob Manning, told about an internship program in Oregon that recruits and trains teenagers straight out of high school to be machinists, welders, and painters.

Oregon students find out about the industrial internship program in shop class—a class that is not offered in all high schools due to budget cuts. But Centennial High School in Gresham, Oregon—just east of Portland—does offer shop classes through its “Metals Manufacturing Program of Study.”  And according to teacher Mark Watt, “students line up to get in.”

Watts went on to say: “I’ve never heard a kid ever say to me, I love coming to school because I can’t wait to come to English. Now, that’s not a slam on English or math because it’s important, but this is the carrot.”

And the carrot has a great reward for students who simply don’t want more studying right after high school, but a job with real earning potential. The internship gives them the training while they are in high school, with the likelihood of a good paying job right after graduation. The NPR story highlighted a few students who were working in the shipyards of North Portland—jobs they secured after completing industrial internships that they heard about in shop class at Centennial. One 18-year-old Centennial graduate came back to promote the internship program to current shop class students. He told them he was making $800 a week in the shipyards.

The story did point out that the industrial internship program needs more manufacturers to participate, but the fact that such a program exists is a great boon to Oregon teens. Students need options because one size does not fit all. College isn’t the right step for some students, and those students need and deserve opportunities for jobs that offer living wages and productive lifestyles. I highly commend Centennial High School for offering such an option to its students. Most schools are so focused on college readiness and are so hindered by budget cuts that they eliminate programs and classes that can lead to worthy vocations.

In fact, I think that while our country is striving for national academic standards through Common Core, it also needs to emphasize and offer skills that give a student immediate opportunity for vocational work. I believe a system that allowed students to choose between a college or vocational track would be valuable. Choosing the vocational track would still include basics in English, math, and science—not necessarily to what is needed for college-level work, but enough that if the vocational student decided years later that he or she wanted to go to college, they could pick up what they needed in a community college and go from there.

Another significant point made in Toward College Success is that parents should help their student toward success in whatever path the student chooses. It may be your dream that your teenager go straight to college, but if that isn’t what he wants, it truly is a waste of time and money. If a vocational path is more attractive to your teen, help her find ways to achieve that.

To listen to or read the transcript of the NPR story, go to: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/29/247825777/from-shop-class-to-shipyard-oregons-plan-for-industrial-interns?sc=tw&cc=share

May 30, 2013

 Taking a gap year or any amount of gap time is a move that benefits most young adults. For many teenagers, going straight into college after high school is not the right path to take, and, so, taking some time to work or travel offers an opportunity for a teenager to mature, grow, and gain experience in the world. I enjoy hearing about gap year plans or stories and I’m delighted to share the plans of a young woman about to embark on her gap year that combines travel and study.

 Abi just graduated from high school, and like many seniors, she applied to college last fall and was accepted into a couple of her choice schools. But last fall, her father, who is a long-time member of the Rotary Club, mentioned to her that the application deadline for the Rotary Youth Exchange program was coming up. Abi was familiar with the program that sends students to other countries to attend school because her family hosted Rotary exchange students in the past. With the love of travel in her blood, Abi recognized the opportunity, applied, and was accepted. This summer she will move in with her host family in Sweden, attend the equivalent of high school for another year, explore a new culture, learn to live without her family, grow her independence, and learn a new language—all great skills for success in college and beyond.

 Even though she most likely will be repeating some subjects, the language will be new and challenging to her. She is already getting her ear tuned in to Swedish using a Rosetta Stone program. As with any looming adventure, Abi is excited and nervous at the same time. I applaud her daring to step beyond the familiar and expand her outlook and experience.

 When she returns, Abi plans to attend one of two colleges here in Colorado. She has already gotten a deferral for her gap year from one school and she hopes to get at least some part of admissions deferral for the other school. Abi says she will major in business because she plans on becoming an entrepreneur. Seems to me that she is on the track to success!

 The Rotary Young Exchange is just one more option for students seeking a gap program. If you or your teenager believes he or she needs to take some gap time before embarking on the college experience, start doing some research now. Rotary Youth Exchange and Americorps are two that won’t cost to participate, but there are many structured gap programs worth checking out. The ultimate goal, of course, is for your teenager to mature and grow enough to be successful in college and beyond.

 To read more about Rotary Youth Exchange, go to: http://www.rotary.org/en/studentsandyouth/youthprograms/rotaryyouthexchange/pages/howitworks.aspx.

To see a picture of Abi, go to: www.facebook.com/towardcollegesuccess.

Jan. 15, 2013

Yesterday I was interviewed by a reporter with a magazine called “Teen Parent,” which is for parents of teenagers. She asked me how parents can determine if their teenagers are ready, willing, and able to succeed in college, and if not, what to do. Then last evening, I attended my local school district’s open house for parents and spoke with one school’s principal who talked to me about the benefits of kids taking a gap year, or even deciding not to go to college at all. I was struck that in one day, I was asked twice about college readiness and the decision to delay going to college right after high school.

 Even though I have been reading and writing about this subject of college readiness for two years, it seems to be a topic on which parents and educators still want to hear more. As I told both the reporter and the principal, I am a proponent of students taking gap time—whenever they need it—be it between high school and college, or during the college years. Although some kids know exactly what they want to do when they grow up, and therefore know what major to choose, I would venture to say that a majority do not. I also say there are many teenagers who do not have the life skills they need to be successful in college, or in whatever they want to do after high school.

 Those students who still need to mature, who still haven’t figured out how to prioritize and self-advocate, who still avoid difficult decisions, who still can’t live on a budget, who have not been given the opportunity to learn from mistakes, or who simply are sick of school—those are students who need to take some time before committing dollars and time to college. Those are students who need to take some gap time, whether it be through an organized program such as Americorps, or something they come up themselves. Maybe he wants to join the military or maybe he just wants to be out on his own working for awhile. Maybe she just needs to see how the world works away from mom and dad.

 One problem is that mom and dad often are afraid that their child will never go to college and therefore never be able to sufficiently support himself. In the end, it is the child’s life and he needs to choose his own path. Parents’ role is to help that young person find success in whichever path she chooses—not dictate the path.

 As I tell parents in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, take a deep breath, ask your teenager what she wants after high school, and listen—really listen—then ask how she plans to get there, and be willing to help her find the path to success.

Dec. 12, 2012

The emphasis on “college readiness” continues to dominate education news. I’ve just read about a new three-year initiative to “develop and study the implementation of a system of signals and supports designed to significantly increase the readiness of students to enter and succeed in college.” The Tri-Level College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) is a collaborative effort by the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

 Apparently this new initiative will build upon existing college readiness indicators to give secondary schools additional tools to determine whether or not their students have what it takes to be college ready. Existing indicators focus on academic skills, while the new CRIS indicators will include some of those “soft skills” that I so often talk about in this forum. In particular, the CRIS indicators look at three levels of college readiness:

  • Academic readiness: Grades, rigorous classes, test scores.
  • Academic tenacity: Includes the student understanding the importance of attendance, of performing well, of self-discipline.
  • College knowledge: Includes understanding the admissions process, actually completing college applications, preparing for entrance exams, meeting with school counselors, and developing good time management and study skills.

 The point of the initiative is to help schools develop their own method of identifying weaknesses in their college readiness efforts; then, of course, the idea is that the schools will implement improvements to bump up those efforts, with the utopian goal of every graduate being ready to succeed in college.

 It is a noble goal and I do believe secondary schools and districts need to better understand what it means to be college ready. However, because not every student will want to go to college, I believe there needs to be just as much effort placed on helping students determine the right path to take after high school graduation. Students need information and guidance on trade, vocational, and certificate programs, and they need to be assured that these are credible paths to pursue. College and career readiness skills definitely overlap, but if the emphasis is solely on college, then we carry on the stigma that trade, vocational, and certificate programs are somehow less noble, less desirable, and an indication that the student couldn’t “make it” at a four-year college.

 Students should be introduced to all post-graduate possibilities as soon as they enter high school, be encouraged to take rigorous courses to keep all options open, and then tailor their junior and/or senior years to enhance the post-secondary path they choose. As for those soft skills—well, as I point out in Toward College Success, schools can do some, but it is really up to parents to guide their teenagers toward the maturity, resiliency, and tenacity that those young adults will need to be successful when they leave home.

 To read more about CRIS, go to http://jgc.stanford.edu/our_work/cris.html or http://www.annenberginstitute.org/VUE/vue35-gurantz

Feb. 29, 2012

I have just learned about an interesting academic program being piloted in four states. It is known as “Excellence for All,” and is a program to greatly increase the number of high school students who graduate ready to succeed in college.

 Developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), the program offers a rigorous course of core subjects that will allow motivated students to finish high school early and start college as young as 16 or 17 if the student so desires. NCEE claims it has “identified the best instructional systems in the world available for use in the United States.” These systems , known as board examination systems, “are high school instructional programs that consist of a coherent core curriculum; well-designed courses described in detailed syllabi; high-quality examinations that assess the extent to which students have mastered the subjects they have studied and can apply what they have learned to unfamiliar problems; and first-class professional development that enhances teachers’ skills and experience and helps them to teach the course to students with diverse abilities and backgrounds.” (Note: I did not change the punctuation in the above quote—I noticed immediately that whoever wrote it does not know the correct use of semicolons.)

 NCEE claims that participating students will receive the support they need to tackle this rigorous, accelerated educational model. Students will take exams at the end of ninth and tenth grade in English, math, science, U.S. and world history, and the arts to determine if they meet the standards set by the program. Those who can show their proficiency will have the following options: 1) taking a certified upper division (11th and 12th grades) program to prepare for “selective four-year colleges and universities,” 2) enroll in a two-year career and technical program, 3) graduate early and enroll in community college, or 4) get a job and start working.

 This program intrigues me because it does not solely emphasize going to college. It recognizes that college isn’t for everyone. But it also leaves me questioning the effort to let students graduate as young as 16 and start community college. As anyone who reads this blog knows, Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? alerts parents to the fact that it takes much more than academic success to be a successful college student. Yes, some students are mature enough, resilient enough, and confident enough to succeed on their own at that age. But most are not, many do not have any idea what career they want to pursue, and many may simply need a break from academics.

 I will watch as this program develops. As promising as it sounds, parents still need to guide their teenagers into developing the skills they will need to succeed in college and life beyond high school. Early graduation may be a possibility for your teen, but don’t rush her off to college if she stills needs opportunities to mature and grow into a successful college student.

To read more about the Excellence for All program, go to: http://www.ncee.org/programs-affiliates/consortium-board-examination/program-description/