Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is College Necessary?

What to do when your teen doesn't want to go to college.

Robert Płóciennik/Deposit Photos
Source: Robert Płóciennik/Deposit Photos

Is college necessary? Well, it depends who you ask. From an early age, children are told that if they want to get a good job then they have to go to college. Ingrained in our societal beliefs is that a college education provides more money which leads to success. Numbers back up those beliefs and show that people who attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree do make more money than those with a high school diploma.

The data suggests that in order for students to prosper, they need to go to college. The majority of youth are hearing these messages. In 2015, the percentage of students enrolling in college in the fall following high school graduation, was 69 percent. In 2017, some 20.4 million students were projected to attend an American college or university, representing an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000. And these numbers are expected to rise over the next decade.

Is college really for everyone and does a degree lead to true happiness? Educational organizations would like for us to think so, but isn’t happiness more about discovering our talents, finding our passion and landing a job that embraces our strengths?

Stuart Miles/Deposit Photos
Source: Stuart Miles/Deposit Photos

What about the student who doesn’t have an interest in going to college? Does that mean this student is doomed to an unsuccessful life? There may be a variety of reasons why some students aren’t interested in postsecondary education such as:

  1. They don’t know what they want to do.
  2. They need a temporary break from school.
  3. They don’t believe they need a college education to do what they want to do.
  4. They march to the beat of their own drum and live day-by-day.

As difficult if may be for some to admit, college isn’t for everyone and that’s OK. Just because some youth choose to forgo a college education, that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful. In fact, there are many successful people who didn’t earn a college degree.

5 Successful People Who Didn’t Earn a College Degree

  • Steve Jobs - founder of Apple - dropped out of Reed College after one semester. Jobs legacy has forever left a significant mark on the technological and business industry.
  • Ellen DeGeneres - dropped out of the University of New Orleans after one semester. Ellen worked hard to make her way to the top as a comedian, television host, actress, writer, producer, and LGBT activist.
  • Michael Dell - following his parents dreams of him becoming a doctor, he enrolled as a pre-med major and dropped out after completing one year at the University of Texas at Austin. Dell is ranked as the 39th richest person in the world by Forbes, with a net worth of US $23.7 billion as of April 1, 2018.
  • Rachael Ray - chose to not attend college nor culinary arts school but that didn’t stop her from becoming a very successful celebrity chef. Rachael spent most of her life learning the skills she needed in the kitchens and started her first business, a food gift-basket service, while in high school.
  • Alicia Keys - After graduating as valedictorian from Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School at 16, she signed a deal with Clive Davis, and attended Columbia University for less than half a semester dropping out to focus on her music.

Some would argue that these artists, entrepreneurs and celebrities are exceptions to the rule. Perhaps that’s true, but who's to say that our children aren’t an exception? Life’s more about helping them find the things that spark their interest and ignite their passion.

What’s a parent to do if their child doesn’t share the same dream of going to college as they do? Well, forcing them to do something they aren’t ready for isn’t the answer. Having them give up their dreams to follow ours isn’t the answer either. The answer lies in helping our children develop some tangible goals to support their dreams, not ours.

Ed Sweetman/Deposit Photos
Source: Ed Sweetman/Deposit Photos

5 Ways to Help Teens Find Their Passion

1. Ask and listen. If we want to know our child’s hopes and dreams, all we need to do is ask and then listen. Giving them an opportunity to describe themselves, their interests and their future goals and dreams will help us better know how to help them discover what they want to do in life. The more teens are able to articulate their strengths, hopes and aspirations the more comfortable they become in describing and accepting themselves. Self-acceptance has been linked with overall life satisfaction. And don’t we want our kids to be happy in life?

2. Identify hidden talents. Too often our kids may struggle to recognize their talents, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They may just need to have opportunities to try new things that will unveil these hidden talents. As parents, we can pay close attention to the things that sparks our kids interest, motivates them, and creates a desire learn and do more.

Here are a few ways to help teens discover their hidden talents:

  • Encourage them to notice the things that they enjoy doing. For example, what kinds of games do they like playing, books do they like reading, shows do they like watching, or music do they like listening to? Also pay attention to the kinds of things they enjoy doing in their spare time for fun, such as cooking, playing a sport, or tinkering in the garage. All of these clues may lead to a hidden talent.
  • Go through the process of elimination. Sometimes it’s easier to identify what we don’t like doing as opposed to what we do like doing, and the same is true for teens. What we don’t like doing is equally important as it allows us an opportunity to eliminate things from our list and focus more on the things we do like.
  • Challenge teens to listen for common messages. Tell your kids to listen to what others say about their strengths. It’s easy for a teen to dismiss a compliment, but odds are, those compliments have a common pattern. Encourage teens to listen for these patterns.

3. Stop, listen and pay attention. Teach teens to listen to their inner voice. Sometimes the answers to the path that we should follow lies in the silence of self-exploration.

4. Explore and practice. Once kids know what they are good at, encourage them to give it a try. When a teen enjoys doing something, it won’t feel like work because it’s perceived as being meaningful. When we do things we don’t like the hands of time move slowly, but “time flies when you’re having fun!”

5. Cultivate experiences. Help teens cultivate their talents and explore various avenues or careers that feed into their strengths. For example, if a teen wants to be in a band and play the guitar, then encourage music lessons, getting into a band, and playing in front of crowds. Also, explore occupations that are centered around guitars like becoming a luthier. There are so many wonderful occupations that tap into similar talents and exposing youth to these opportunities can open a window to endless possibilities.

6. Believe in them. Finally, we need to believe in our kids. We have to set aside our own desires and allow them to achieve theirs, even if that doesn’t include college. It’s important that we praise our youth regularly for their accomplishments and that we support their dreams for that’s what fuels achievement and success.

Viktor Rudo/Deposit Photos
Source: Viktor Rudo/Deposit Photos

The neat thing about education is it's always there and people can take advantage of going back to school at any point in their lives. In life, there’s no such thing as a perfect course to success. People carve their own unique path and that may or may not include college. I wonder how many youth work hard to become who we want them to be, rather than becoming who they want to be...

More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today