My Graduate Isn’t College Bound. Did I Fail?


High school graduates sit in their caps and gowns during the graduation ceremony.The end of your child’s high school years usually involves lots of feelings. It might include gratitude, joy, sadness, and, perhaps, relief. But one feeling that doesn’t need to be part of the equation is feeling like a failure.

If your son or daughter isn’t making plans to attend college after high school, rest assured you’ve done nothing wrong.

To the mom whose son or daughter has recently decided that college might not be for him or her, I hope you are filled with just as much excitement for what is still possible for the future. Here are some ways to navigate these conversations with your child, others, and yourself, plus one NOT-to-do for parents in a situation like this.

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To My Kid: I Still Love You

In my work as a professional counselor, I see too often the pressure our high school students face to strive for perfection. The anxiety, chronic stress, and self-worth that is only found in earning top-notch grades usually makes for an unpleasant life. Parents champion these overachieving behaviors, usually because they have become too involved in these choices. They wear their kids’ achievements like personal badges of honor, and that carries too high a cost on their children’s emotional and mental well being.

If your student isn’t heading off to college this fall, talk to him or her with curiosity and compassion about his or her plans. What is she interested in? What plans does he see himself fulfilling? What does she  need from you as mom in this season of trying to figure out what is next?

Assure her or him that many people aren’t certain about the future right out of high school. Not knowing what to do at 18 or 19 years old isn’t a problem to be fixed, but rather an opportunity to stay open to possibility. Remind him or her often how much you love them.

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To Family and Friends: Keep Your Opinions to Yourself

When people find out that your child isn’t making plans to attend college, my hope is that you’re met with a smile instead of judgment. But chances are, people might have something to say. We live in a world where opinions, too often, are shared.

“But how is he going to get a good job?”

“You seriously aren’t going to let her make this choice, are you? She’ll regret not being pushed to do it.”

“Well, that’s just not an option at our house!”

Intention doesn’t matter nearly as much as we’d like. What matters is how that person received what you said, and it’s important for us to be aware of that. A fair metric to use when offering unsolicited advice is simple: Unless someone has asked for your opinion, it’s best to keep it to yourself.

As a clinician, I encourage you to release the self-imposed responsibility to change people’s minds. You aren’t going to do it. Your best friend Nancy or neighbor Susan are allowed to have their own thoughts and feelings about things. And while we can hope that they keep those to themselves, sometimes that’s just not how it goes.

Young woman applies make up on a female client.

Be intentional with your responses to what feels like other people’s criticisms. Let people know what you want or need, and know that it is fair and reasonable to tell people that their opinions aren’t helpful.

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To Myself: I Did Not Fail

You did it, mama. Your son or daughter has successfully mastered elementary school, middle school, and high school. Everyone has survived the countless dress-up days, hours of late-night homework, dreaded teacher-parent conferences, meetings with principals, and an overwhelming number of emails to teachers and school counselors throughout the years. I hope you celebrate all you did to help support your child, and all that your child did to get to this point. Graduating high school is an accomplishment, even if there is no college in the future.

You. Did. Not. Fail. You are raising a child who can stand in the discomfort of doing something different than maybe what you had always envisioned. You are raising an autonomous adult who is peeling away the layers of people-pleasing tendencies. That is something certainly worth celebrating.

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Numbers Don’t Lie

The statistics of higher education admission numbers tell us a story that deserves our attention. Since 2021, college admission numbers have declined. And for the most part, this trend continues to playout. More and more high school students are finding promising futures through paths that don’t require college degrees. Certifications, licenses and on-the-job experience are no longer the route for just the less-than-stellar student.

Factors like rising college costs, increase in cost of living, and a generation of students who refuse to enter the career-field with a mountain of student debt are just a few reasons students may shy away from a college experience. And here is what students also know: A college degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job, nor does it guarantee success.

Young male auto technician poses in front of car in an auto repair bay.

If you are navigating a post high-school experience that is so different from what you envisioned, it’s okay to grieve. But what I would remind any parent struggling to accept this choice from his or her student is don’t make this about you. You can grieve without spewing guilt. You can think about all the things you wish were different without ever uttering a word about it to your adult child. If you are the one struggling with this choice, then I’d recommend seeking some professional help because that’s your problem to solve.

Cheers to the students who are blazing their own trails, and cheers to the parents who are learning to let go.


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