How to Talk About Your Decision to Forgo Higher Education

Jun 22, 2011

In many families, it is assumed that all children will attend college. Some people end up attending college more because they think it's what they should do, rather than because it's what they want to do. For high school students who are expected to attend college, but ultimately decide not to, the conversation about why and how they reached this decision can be difficult to approach.

By Sarah Wright


Breaking the News

It is a cultural norm in many places that the majority of kids in a given high school will go on to attend college. Many of the students in these schools have parents and grandparents who went to college and expect their children to do the same. Some of these families even start saving tuition money well before the kids are old enough to really understand what higher education is all about. Though completing postsecondary education is expected out of some students, it's ultimately not what they want to do.

The reasons for this decision can be many and varied. There are numerous career options that do not require a college degree, and some students simply aren't sure they're ready to commit to a major and career track right out of high school. If you're someone who feels obligated to go to college, but don't really want to attend, you should think twice before going down the wrong track for you just because you are worried about what people might think.

If you decide not to go to college, you'll have to tell people about it - friends, family and teachers - and that might be a difficult conversation to have. Some people might express disappointment, or try to change your mind. But if you're sure that college isn't right for you, there are ways to approach this conversation that will result in a productive, reassuring discussion. Here are some tips:

Do Your Research

You can't really know that college isn't right for you unless you do your due diligence. Look into various programs you might be interested in. Try to find a school that might appeal to you. Visit some college classes to see what they're all about. You might end up finding that college isn't such a bad idea after all. And even if this research does nothing but galvanize your initial position that you don't want to attend, it will give you some concrete, specific reasons to discuss when you explain why you're not going.

Have a Plan

Before you break the news that you aren't going to college, make sure you know what you'll be doing instead. Even if you haven't lined up a specific job yet, have a concrete plan of action. Very few concerned people are going to be reassured by a plan like 'Oh I don't know, I figured I'd travel around and use up my savings while I find myself.' But having a plan isn't just good to assuage others' fears - it's good for you. Knowing what you're going to do after high school will help you avoid stalling out.

Be Polite and Understanding

If you're from a family where college is an expected part of life, your relatives might get a little upset or touchy when you tell them that you have other plans. First of all, you'll want to avoid escalating the situation by engaging in an argument. When a big life step like college is expected of you, and you decide you don't want to do it, this can be shocking for some people.

Be patient. If you break the news to someone who is genuinely upset about it, give him or her some time to calm down before you push the issue. But ultimately, when you explain why you've made your choice, do it in a way that doesn't sound condescending or critical of other people's choices. It could be that your parents expect you to go to college because it was such a good choice for them, and being insulting about that isn't going to help you.

Be Confident

If you're certain in your decision, and you have a good set of reasons and a plan of action for after graduation, there's no reason to doubt yourself or feel nervous. A calm sense of confidence can make you seem more authoritative, making it less likely that people will second guess you or try to change your mind. And if anyone does try to tell you that you're making the wrong decision, explain why you know that's not the case.

Pick the Right Occasion

Timing is everything with these discussions. For example, Thanksgiving dinner while your cousins are throwing mashed potatoes at each other while your mom and her sister yell at each other about politics is NOT the time to broach the subject. Neither is your high school graduation day. Choose a time well before you or your parents might mail in a registration fee to a college. And make sure it's a situation where everyone can feel comfortable having an extended discussion that might get a bit emotional or heated at times. If you approach your family with respect, they will be much more likely to treat your choices with respect.

If you're thinking about things you might do as alternative to college, here are some careers that don't require a degree.

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