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Why I Stopped Pushing My Son to Go to College

Is college for everyone? The answer might be no. How do you accept it, as a parent, that your child isn't going to college? It is tough to see what you might think is failure on the part of your kids, even if it is actually the right thing for them. You are at least going to be sparing them student loan debt! You might relate to this mother, too, sharing her feelings in "why I stopped pushing my son to go to college."

If someone had told me even a year ago that I would be okay with the idea of my son opting out of college, I would have called them a liar. I’ve always been a huge believer in getting the most education you can and continuing to learn throughout your lifetime. But, just like those people who say things like “My child will NEVER do X or Y!” I’m learning that plans, hopes, and wishes can change at the drop of a hat. And that sometimes maybe they should.

Jayden is 14 and a freshman in high school. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), which is a mild form of autism.

This is the part where a lot of people are patronizing me in their heads – they hear “autism” and go, “Oh honey, of COURSE he doesn’t have to go to college.”  But that just shows me how little people know about AS.

There’s a saying that goes, “When you’ve met a kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism.” Meaning it doesn’t always present the same way for every child. What does AS mean for Jayden? It means he has a genius IQ but poor social skills. It means he is a visual learner and a little OCD and needs detailed step-by-step instructions to complete many tasks. It means he doesn’t “get” sarcasm or body language. Ever hear about engineers who are sooo smart but socially inept? Many of them probably have AS. (Think Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”) It does not mean he is intellectually disabled. Some autistic kids are, but mine is not.

Anyway, About School

One of the worst parts about parenting a child with AS is dealing with the school system. I’ve written about this before. Jayden told me once that he felt like everyone in the whole school spoke another language and he was the only one who never knew what was going on. He gets occupational therapy at school for difficulty with things like handwriting and buttoning his pants. (Yes, at 14.) He gets speech therapy to try to help him learn to have conversations instead of talking at people all the time. And he has struggled with school from about 3rd grade on.

AS is very misleading. In his early years of school, Jayden’s teachers marveled at his advanced vocabulary and how smart he was. One of his skills is memorizing large chunks of the things he hears – he can repeat a 20-minute TV show word for word after hearing it once, for example. And in the first few years of school where so much of the curriculum centered around memorization, he excelled. Unfortunately, though, memorizing something didn’t mean he had the first clue what it really meant.

As he has gotten older, school has become less about memorizing and more about critical thinking. Sure, you may know a million details about the World War II, Jayden, but what do you think Hitler’s actions tell us about life in that era? *crickets* All the teachers who used to tell me there was nothing “wrong” with him have finally been able to see his deficits. And it has made school a living hell for him. I’ve had that horrible helpless feeling of watching him fall behind, not because he can’t learn the material, but because it’s not presented in a way that makes sense to him.

But Bright Kids Should Go to College!

My son is smart. Extremely smart. But he doesn’t want to go to college. After years of struggling in a system that isn’t made for people like him, he’s just counting down the time until graduation. He despises sitting at a desk and doing anything that involves writing. He doesn’t want any kind of office job. And it drives the school staff insane.

For a long time I let it bother me as well. I felt like it was a waste of that gifted brain if he didn’t become a scientist or researcher or do something great with his life. And I really thought college would be different – he would be able to focus on the things he loves (science and math) and get away from the areas that are more difficult for him. For me, so much of what I learned in college wasn’t on the syllabus; it was more about learning how to conduct myself in professional situations and learning to look at things from perspectives other than my own. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?

Well, this one apparently. Because ten months ago I left my career to become a self-employed freelancer. I took my college education and two degrees and threw them out the window. I kicked the walls out of the box I’d made for myself and decided to look at where my skills lie instead of which pieces of paper had my name on them. And that focus on skills has allowed me to earn a living on a schedule that helps me to be a better and happier person. I don’t regret going to college at all, but it didn’t necessarily get me to where I am right now. How can I force my child into a box that may not be the right fit for him?

Considering the Alternatives

Unfortunately, kids who decide not to go to a 4-year or community college have very few options. Jayden could go work for minimum wage somewhere (and live with me until he’s 40), or he could go to vocational school and learn a trade. That’s basically it.

I’ve become a big fan of him learning a trade, other than the fact that people assume kids go to trade school because they’re too “dumb” to go to college. Let me just say that for all my education, I couldn’t rewire my house if my life depended on it. I can’t drive a forklift or mini excavator or read a blueprint. Yet all of those things are necessary in our society – someone has to know how. And out of all the people I know who can do those things, I can’t think of a single one of them who isn’t super smart.

I think if Jayden decided to be a contractor or plumber or electrician, he could basically name his price. He would have the freedom to work for himself and avoid the office politics and water cooler talk that would be an absolute nightmare for him. He could wear jeans instead of a suit. He could get out into the community instead of isolating himself in an office (or his messy room) all the time. And I think he would find value and fulfillment in what he did instead of being forced into a career that didn’t fit his personality or abilities.

So, College? Probably Not

Jayden is only 14 years old. A lot could change in the next few years, and I have no way to predict what he’ll eventually choose to do. He may go to college and love every minute of it for all I know. But I doubt it.

It’s still kind of hard for me to sit back and let him make that choice, to realize he’s not going to follow the path I had in mind when he was an infant. But I’ve made the decision not to push him into something he doesn’t want. The cool thing about being a parent is knowing I’ll be proud of my child whether he ends up with a college degree or a tool belt – I’ve learned that his dreams have nothing at all to do with mine, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


  1. My husband and I both have master's degrees, and we don't plan on pushing our 2 kids into college, either. We save for it, and we would like for them to go, but more than that, I would like for them to sit down and critically think about what kind of career they would be happy in. The idea that everyone is right for college totally is a 'box' and honestly, I wish I hadn't heard that constantly growing up. I wish I had been shown a wider variety of career options and not been given this false picture that college degrees immediately make life rosy.

  2. christineslittleblog says

    Awesome post! I used to nanny for a boy with AS and it sucks how much people "think" they know. As soon as I took the job, this boy's mom literally gave me a folder full of information to read. I thought it was a little extra at first but I learned SO much and was MUCH better able to help him! (Part of my job was tutoring/homework help as well as nannying)

  3. I grew up always knowing I'd go to university, but I think it's totally legitimate to go to trade school. As you said, the world needs plumbers, bakers, and electricians. And, speaking as someone in the software industry, those are things that can't be outsourced overseas.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article. I don't have children but I can relate to what you are saying. I went to college and it worked for me but my boyfriend is quite the opposite. He loves working in the trades and has been able to make a decent living doing what he loves and there is opportunity for him in the future. Don't let anyone ever tell you that working with your hands is any less important than sitting at an office crunching numbers all day. Like you said, we need people like that in the world. Good for you for not pushing him into doing something that he hates just because "society" thinks it better. I bet he will be in a lot less debt than some other people I know.

  5. I am glad you are open to other options. I never understood why parents force kids who don't want to go to college to go. Most of them end up dropping out with loans they can't pay back.

  6. What a great story to share. Thanks for enlightening me about AS. I knew about it but I didn't quite understand it. I'm sure your son will be successful with anything he decides to you with a mother like you supporting him. Hang in there girl

  7. morenewnonsense says

    I don't know if you're familiar with Mike Rowe and his MikeRowe Works foundation? (Yes the Dirty Jobs guy). He has become a huge proponent of bringing back the trade jobs and making them mean something again. He has testified in front of the Senate even that we are losing the skilled laborers who make the US great because we're all so focused on pushing a college education as the only way to go.

    From his blog:
    "Doesn’t it seem strange that we can have a shortage of skilled labor, a crumbling infrastructure, and rising unemployment? How did we get into this fix? Are we lazy? Our society has slowly redefined what it means to have a “good job.” The portrayals in Hollywood and the messages from Madison Avenue have been unmistakable. “Work less and be happy!” For the last thirty years we’ve been celebrating a different kind of work. We’ve aspired to other opportunities. We’ve stopped making things. We’ve convinced ourselves that “good jobs” are the result of a four year degree. That’s bunk. Not all knowledge comes from college. Skill is back in demand. Steel toed boots are back in fashion. And Work Is Not The Enemy."

    I think that given the huge student debt crisis we're dealing with now, people need to take a good hard look at WHY they're going to college or why they're pushing their kids to go to college. Doing it because "that's what you do" is the absolute wrong reason. Let's bring back the skilled trades and make them honorable again and quit shaming kids and parents for choosing a different (non collegiate) path.

  8. Andrea, you are the coolest mom I know. 🙂 Jayden is lucky to have a parent who doesn't force HER dreams/aspirations onto her child.

    And I'm in total agreement about trade school. My youngest brother is not academically-minded. He absolutely HATED high school. But he has the kind of mind that can rebuild a car engine, something me and my college graduate pals could never do. A person who goes to trade school is not dumb in the least. They're smart in a practical, problem-solving way, and that's a valuable mind.

  9. Yay, nice post. I know nothing about Asperger, but I know pushing kids is always a bad idea. Besides, if Jayden wants to study something by himself, I'm sure he'll be able to do it. Some of the brightest people I know didn't go to Uni. or didn't finish it but followed their passions and talents.

  10. My boyfriend Jonathan and I think he was Asperger's and he sounds so much like Jayden! Jonathan just turned 30 and he only decided to go to bike frame building school this past year. He never thought he could go to a "normal" college (his words), was too anxious and un-sure of himself to go out there, and then only last year said that he had finally figured out what he wanted to do in life and it's one of the first times he's ever made a big Life Decision and now he finally feels ready to tackle it. He currently works as a call center operator and has been with the company for five years or so. It's a fine job with benefits and it works for him for the most part, but I'm proud of him that he has finally picked something to do in life and is actually excited to have a purpose.

  11. Christi Frederick says

    I love love love this post! Since I have the task of writing "Transition Plans" for Individualized Educational Plans for my students, this is a constant 'hot topic" in my world. It is amazing to see former students that had real world skills, hands on abilities, mechanical inclinations, etc. who were encouraged (along with their parents) to just hang on in High School until eligibility for vocational training (11th/12th grade). The vast majority LOVED learning a trade and SOARED to the top of their class at the Technology and Trade Centers. Two things the Technology Centers look for in a candidate (as they are essentially paid for how many employable students graduate from their respective programs and go to work in their field), parental support and great attendance. Jayden sounds like the perfect candidate and I hope he finds something he loves. Isn't that what we all really want? To LOVE what we do for a living? And you are the perfect role model for him. Rock on, Andrea.

  12. moneybeagle says

    It sounds as if you've really thought long and hard about how to allow him to be the most successful that he can be as an individual, and kudos to you for that.

  13. I guess I don't understand why taking a trade would be different for Jayden. You still have to have the social skills to deal with customers in almost all trades today. At least if you want to make a decent living you do. More specifically a "…contractor or plumber or electrician…" requires plenty of interaction with other people and customers. This also includes more than just memorizing and knowing what to do step-by-step. In the real world, steps on a sheet never work correctly and the best contractors are the ones who think outside of the box when it comes to getting things done. I am not saying Jayden couldn't do anything in the world, just wondering why you think being a contractor is better for him than anything in the cubical world?

    • What he chooses to do with his life has nothing to do with his grasp of social skills – he is learning those. They just aren't intuitive for him like they are for most people. I'm more worried about the education that will be required and the everyday work environment. He can do pretty much anything if he learns hands on, but learning from a textbook isn't as easy for him. He wants a job where he's DOING something, not sitting at a desk pushing paper. And once he memorizes (yes, memorizes) the things he would have to do, such as this is how you build a header or this is how you wire a house, he would be able to apply those in real life situations with no problem. Trying to explain AS in a few paragraphs obviously doesn't tell the whole story, but he is more than capable of doing whatever he wants. My concern is more about him choosing a career that fits his interests; learning the skills won't be a problem.

      • Sounds like a good plan. I just didn't understand the logic behind your original post, but now I see. I love the idea of just getting him into something he likes, because most kids don't want to do anything after high school. I know I didn't, but I am glad I at least had a job that kept me busy. 🙂 I will have to research AS more, as I truly don't know a whole lot about it.

  14. Do you watch Parenthood on TV? There's a character about your son's age with AS who seems very much like you son.

  15. Oh how I love you! My husband was in an accident in his late teens that resulted in minor brain damage, everyone says that afterwards he was just different. He hates social situations, is unusually quiet, and doesn't understand social cues. Yet he is brilliant. Advanced math, science and mechanics are like second nature to him. So he avoided the traditional college route and became an electrician. He loves it, is good at it, and the "office" politics are almost nonexistent. However, just a word of note for your son, being an electrician is not a matter of memorizing facts, but the how and whys behind the facts are paramount.

  16. What about joining the military like how your cousin did? He may have a hard time with discipline but isnt he in JROTC?? He may find a specialized skill they could help him with just a thought

  17. I like your perspective — it's true that it doesn't matter what he does, or where he goes when he turns 18 — and having you to support him helps tremendously. Kudos, mama.

  18. Although my wife and I are college graduates, we were never fixated on college for our children. It was more important that they liked whatever career they would select. It turned out that my children did go to college, but I would have been okay with a trade.

  19. I like how you're focusing on him finding what he's interested in and pursuing it. Although I'm a big advocate for college being accessible to everyone, I don't think that everyone should go to college – not everyone wants to, and not everyone needs to! If Jayden finds a trade to be more interesting than school/office work, then that's what he should do!

    Of course, I'd also love to hear that he is interested in doing research, but that's just my own little bias 🙂

  20. I hope you will still consider talking to the folks at the Kelly Autism Center in Bowling Green. They deal with kids every day from preschool on up who are on the autism spectrum. They also support kids who do choose college.
    I'd also recommend checking with the local Vocational Rehab office to see what sort of support they can offer. Their whole goal is to get folks with disabilities (or different abilities) working.
    We have taken advantage of both KAP and Voc Rehab and my daughter is in her second (successful) year of college at WKU.

    • I called KAP last spring, but the woman I spoke with told me they were more of an after-school program for kids in the Bowling Green area. Maybe I need to call and talk to someone else?

  21. I love that you are ok with the idea of your brilliant son not going to college! I have a master's degree in economics but I have always worked in finance/accounting, and nothing I learned in school was necessary for any of my jobs.

    I have always said that college isn't for everyone, and until very recently, it was always considered an option. Unfortunately, now degrees have become commodities, and everyone is expected to have one or more. I actually work for a major university (I spend over 4 years working for the graduate school of social work ;-)), and I get disgusted every time I see these students who shouldn't be in school going through the system!

  22. It depends on what he wants to do. Many engineers and scientists are poor at social situations. There are some who are charismatic, and they tend to go into management or sales and earn more money, but there are plenty of great engineers and scientists that just take in assignments, put out good work, and rarely interact with others. Realize also that most successful politicians were C students. Obama was, Bush was. Gore was. (This is why I don't understand why people would want the Government to make important decisions for them.) The last genius President was Carter, and look how he did.

    Also, you are using your college. A lot of what college is about is learning how to learn and seeing things beyond your personal experience growing up. Most people use very little of what they specifically learned in class, but the ability to learn new things after you graduate is critical. I'm not saying that everyone should go to college, but if college were only valuable if you used what you learned in class every day at work, there wouldn't be so many liberal arts majors.

  23. nicoleandmaggie says

    College is *very* different than K-12 in so many ways. Many bright kids flourish in college in ways they did not in K-12. I'm not saying that college isn't for him, but that at age 14 and only experiences in K-12 he may not have full information.

    And there's nothing wrong with trade school, but there's also something to be said for getting a college degree, not for the job credentials but for the learning, and because it's a hell of a lot more pleasant place to be than K-12. (Also, my sister takes her engineering degree and spends a lot of time climbing around pipes. She was making 6 figures two years after she got out, and has kept on getting raises since then.)

  24. Just found your blog today through another I was reading. My son is 14 and has many issues. He is a great kid. I am so blessed to have him in my life, but he is so socially inept he doesn't really have any friends or enjoy doing social things. My son, also though is very bright. He is so literal that you can't even really joke with him.
    We homeschool so he can get an education without all the social stress of school. But I wonder what the future will bring. He also has a hard time feeling or getting emotion.
    The worst part is my entire family thinks he is the way he is because I baby him (never mind the countless doctors I have taken him to with numerous diagnosis.) Even my church family doesn't understand. But most people do not do not see these bahaviors, they just see him not interacting and assume he is rude.
    It is sad hard for me as I am such a social person, but evn more hard when people like my grandmother say he is just being rude to her because he will not look at her and talk to her. Especially since my 9 year old is so chatty with everyone.

  25. Good for you. I think college can be a wonderful opportunity for people. But not everyone is fated to go to college. Some of us are meant to start our own businesses, like you and I have. Others to learn a trade or other skill. It really bothers me that many people now think that a person who doesn't go to college is some sort of moron who has no chance in life. Also, with the ridiculous costs associated with college it just doesn't make as much sense as it used to. My neice just graduated from Iowa with a degree in Psychology. She's $120,000 in debt and without further education can't even get a job in the field.

    There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with physical work. I wish people would realize that if everyone goes off to college trying to be an engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc, that there will be too many people looking for too few jobs in those fields. Those people will still need someone to fix their car, rewire their house, build a road, or custom build some built ins.

    Good for you for having the courage to balk at society's predetermined set of rules for our young people.

  26. I hope that Jayden has a try at whatever it is he feels comfortable with and goes with it, and sees what he can get out of it. There's time enough to see if he can get enough out of a trade to flourish or see if he wants to give the idea of some different post-high school education a try later on. As NicoleandMaggie point out, it is quite different from high school and with the right professors, that might be a good environment for him.

    I managed a bright young soul with Asperger's, relatively book smart and quite capable but socially challenged, for a good long while, and it was a huge learning experience. I can only speak for myself about how much I learned from it ultimately. But along the way, I discovered that even with the relative ease with which this young one was able to read and write new material, it was still a struggle to take that material to the next level (solo) in the environment of high achievers because of the struggle with the social skills, so we had to spend quite a bit of time mentoring and coaching.

    I wouldn't have relegated this one to physical work just because the extra effort was too hard, oh no! But I could most certainly see how other hands-off managers were very dismissive of the "attitude" and the "lack of understanding" and interpreted that as lack of knowledge and lack of ability because they didn't realize it was an inability to communicate effectively the first three (sometimes six) times. Certainly, I know that no high-level manager/director has that kind of time in a high-pressure environment but it would be really important to have someone who is willing AND able to take that time early on to teach professional expectations, skills and the issues of perception in a way that's not damaging.

    Good solid skills in the formative years, whether it's trade or white collar or administrative, seem like they could be really useful foundations to go forward on. (I think I went off on a tangent here….)

  27. I know very little about Aspergers, but I do know that the vast majority (all?) who have it are actually quite gifted.

    And I think you're right not to force him into a situation he can't cope with. Also, yes, he can train with a plumber or electrician or HVAC person and write his own ticket. He can always try college courses later if his coping skills improve or he just decides he is ready to try.

    I know a smart man's whose son tried college, and it didn't work for him. So he switched to a trade school. The kid's perfectly smart and the only thing he has is ADD — and he's currently medicated. But regular college didn't suit him. Currently, he's earning about $30 an hour while training. He's already saving for a townhouse of his own. He's actually thinking about getting a duplex and renting out half of it.

    I'd say the smartest thing a person can do is figure out what realistically will work and then figure out how to make the best life within those parameters.

  28. kimateyesonthedollar says

    Obviously you know your son better than anyone else and it's good to know you are OK with him choosing what works best for him. If he can find something he enjoys and can make a living with that's really one of the goals as a parent, right? Probably if you can get through high school, It will be lots easier for him.

  29. I find it inspirational that you are self employed and running your own business now. Everyone is different and you want what's best for your son. It sounds like school is really hard for him now and college could potentially be even harder. As his mother you know him better than anyone and you'll help guide him in the direction that's best for him. And you're right that a lot can still change in four years. Whatever happens, he's lucky to have you as such a strong supporter!

  30. Your son is smarter than most kids his age. Most of them would say they were going to go to college and would have no clue what they were going to do in college. I find that a waste of youthful talent that could be spent on other things.

  31. I was just talking the other day, with one of my career consulting clients about this very thing. Students and parents, waste both their time and money (and their skills) when they go to college because "they have to". Then they end up like you or me, who prefers not to use our degrees and make our own luck instead.

    I'm not a parent, so I don't know what I would want for my child, but I think you're making a great decision! The school system is broken. Plain and simple. Instead of focusing on the "A" you made in English and putting you in advanced English classes, they focus on the "D" you got in Math and spend all of their time on the areas you're weak in, instead of focusing on your strengths. That's a horrible strategy! And they expect every child to be a Audio learner and an analytical thinker. Like I said…it's broken.

  32. As a parent with AS kid I can totally understand your situation. My son is the same thing.. great at memorizing items but extremely poor at critical thinking. School is becoming more difficult with him as he grows, but whatever my son decides, I will be supportive of him.

    • So glad to meet another blogger who understands! It definitely gets tougher in middle and high school, but the right supports can make a world of difference. This is the first year the school has actually made an effort to follow Jayden's IEP and he is doing well so far. (Knock on wood!) Hopefully your son is in a great school with lots of resources to help him make it through.

  33. I think that’s a great decision! My 23 year old is on the Spectrum and with the structure in High School she did pretty well. She had an IEP and seemed to enjoy her classes. Going to the local community college though was a disaster. IEPs don’t mean anything there and the lack of structure just meant a lot of frustration on our side and hers.

    Unfortunately, she still hasn’t found what she wants to do, but is volunteering for a local ‘Meals-on-Wheels’ organization. We didn’t get her diagnosed until she was 19 (prior to that we ‘Only’ thought it was ADHD) and it’s been slow getting into the Government system, but we’re getting there. I don’t know all of your situation, but would encourage you to check out some of the programs available in your area.

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