The Four-Year Fork in the Road: College Alternatives

Choosing a college isn’t an unexpected decision when you’re a parent, but it’s a daunting one—especially if your child doesn’t fit a four-year college mold.


The pressure starts early—post-secondary counseling typically begins during a child’s freshman year of high school. When it feels like all your friends are talking about which great university their child is headed to next fall, what options exist if yours doesn’t seem ready to leave the nest?

Ready, set…wait?

The pressure to attend a traditional four-year institution isn’t necessarily a “North Shore” thing, as it’s sometimes stereotyped. Evanston therapist Jack Rosenberger, M. Div., L.C.S.W. says that for the most part, residents of the North Shore are people who “worked their butt off to get where they are,” and that with no other model of adulthood than that of hard working, committed and driven professionals, it’s sometimes easier for kids to “cling to a model of perpetual adolescence.”

“Parents need to sit down and ask, ‘Is my child going to benefit from this experience? Are we seeing signs that indicate he or she is ready for the big launch?’ If you’re seeing behavior that is counter to what you’d expect to see from a child headed off to college, it could be the child is trying to tell you something he or she doesn’t have the words for.”

Area high schools embrace the “why?” versus “where?” mindset as well. “Our entire philosophy is to get kids thinking about ‘Why am I going to school?’ versus ‘Where am I going?’” says Glenbrook South High School’s Coordinator of College Counseling Ann LePage.

Beginning with their freshman year, LePage says, children assess their strengths and weaknesses. “It’s a comprehensive model of identifying kids early on,” she says. “And then we address it every year, looking for the best opportunities to challenge them to move to the next level.”

“For some kids, another four years of an academic-like experience could be a nightmare for them. At the same time, there are kids with learning difficulties and challenges that do end up taking the college route. Everyone hits their academic maturity at different times.”

New Trier High School Post-High School counselor Linda Connelly says that while there is no hard data on the number of children who return home after a year of school, or even a semester, it’s apparent the phenomenon exists.

“From my experience as a post-high school counselor, far too many students are going off to school immediately,” she says. “Many of these students would have benefitted by having some time to identify their interests, explore their interests, and discover who they are as emerging young adults. More families should consider stepping off the education treadmill for a short period of time and evaluate themselves.”

It’s a go

On the flip side, Rosenberger is careful to point out there are kids, who, after their junior year, are more than ready to leave the high school setting for college.

“You can tell which teenager is ready to go,” he says. “I see the full range…I see the kids that are also suffering because they’re ready to leave high school and still need to complete another year.”

Deerfield High School college counselor Marybeth Kravets says there are even options for the child who is already thinking beyond college. “You can go directly to medical school out of high school,” she says, pointing to a program developed by a Deerfield High School grad in which students can attend six years of English-speaking medical school programming in eastern European countries and then return to the United States a certified doctor, two years ahead of their American contemporaries.

Have the conversation, consider the options

Parents need to ask themselves, “Who is driving the life plan for the child?” says Rosenberger. And saying no to a traditional four-year experience isn’t necessarily saying no to college altogether.

“I don’t care if you take it at Harvard or Oakton,” Rosenberger says. “It’s still English 101.”

Kravets concurs. “I will ask parents, ‘Where did your doctor go to medical school?’ and they can’t answer me. The fact is, once they cross that stage and we hand them their diploma, no one remembers where you’ve gone. It’s not where you went but what you’re doing.”

Parents should listen to their children’s concerns and not dismiss them entirely as a case of freshman jitters. “If you have a kid that hates the classroom setting, it’s OK to say they’re not up to that,” says LePage.

“Families should have the conversation,” says Kravets. “Ultimately, whatever it is a child decides to do, you need an education to get there. It’s just about putting everything out on the table and basing a decision on what is best for you.”

What are some of the options? Think about:

Books to read:

Excuse Me, College Is Now: How to Be a Success in School and in Life
Doreen Banaszak and Sebastian Oddo




Community College: Is It Right For You
Susan H. Stafford




Success Without College: Why Your Child May Not Have to Go to College Right Now–and May Not Have to Go At All
Linda Lee




Choosing the Right College 2010-11: The Whole Truth About America’s Top Schools
John Zmirak



Now What?: The Young Person’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Career
Nicholas Lore

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