Not all high school students will go on to college.

Some will make this decision early on, and you can strategize with them about alternate paths, such as trade classes they can take now or if they’re interested in attending a technical school. But many others will be on the fence, unsure of whether college is the right move for them. 

Sarah Langford, an independent educational consultant and college counselor at a performing arts high school in Chicago, has worked with a number of students who express doubts about their college plans. “When a student suddenly changes their mind, there’s usually something that’s unrelated to college driving the doubt,” she says. “Look for things going at home, at school or in their social life.” 

Of course, that’s not the case for every student; the truth is, college isn’t for everyone. To figure out the source of a student’s indecision, try good old-fashioned talking. To steer the conversation and determine if college is, in fact, the right choice for a student, Langford recommends covering these five points.

1. Figure Out If it’s Just Nerves

If a student who’s been on a college track suddenly expresses doubt — especially the summer before or early in the fall of senior year — it’s often nerves or a reaction to the intensifying application process. “They hate everything about applying to college and they just shut down,” Langford says. “That’s when I say, ‘OK, I get it. This is awful. However, college is awesome.’” If this approach gains traction, you’ll want to remind the student that college is still a year (or more) away, but they need to apply now if they want to have the option later.

2. Recommend a Gap Year

Taking agap year” does not mean putting off college applications for a year; it’s applying during senior year, getting in and then requesting permission to delay matriculation and paying a nonrefundable deposit to hold your spot. While anyone can request a gap year, Langford says they work especially well for students who are younger than the typical freshman, had periods of illness or hospitalization during high school or are suffering from mental health issues or feelings of burn-out. Whatever the individual circumstances, students will need to present colleges with a description of how they plan to spend the year meaningfully, such as interning, living in another country, volunteering or taking interesting coursework.

3. Discuss the Realities of Waiting to Apply

If a student simply wants to delay applying to college, discuss what it will be like to shift the process by a year, two years or longer. Besides becoming logistically more complicated once the student physically leaves their high school — from requesting a transcript from the registrar to popping into the college guidance office for information — relationships with teachers, who will likely write their recommendations, will not be as close. “If you’re not in the building seeing teachers every day, you very well might move to the bottom of their priority list,” Langford says. “That doesn’t mean a teacher won’t write a recommendation, but it will be tougher to arrange. And if they do write one, they may not remember the student as well as they would have when they were in their class, which means the recommendation might not be as strong.”

4. Get Real About Life After High School

If the student still seems reluctant about applying to college without having a clear reason why, you might start talking specifics about life after high school. “I might pull stats on something like earning power for people without college degrees versus those with them,” says Langford. “I’ll also ask them to consider what they’ll do for money next year and where they will live. Many parents will say, ‘That’s OK if you don’t want to go to college, but you’re not living here.’ I work to make students consider what not going to college will look like and encourage them to ask themselves if it truly makes sense.”

5. Recommend Community College

Community colleges can be an attractive alternative for the right student, which is why Langford suggests them in certain circumstances. “If a student doesn’t have the grades they need but has begun to show improvement, I will recommend community college,” she says. “But I only do this when it’s clear they will not yet do well at a four-year school or they won’t receive much-needed financial assistance at one.” 

Each student is unique, with different interests, ambitions, family situations and pressures — which makes your knowledge of them and your professional experience the most valuable resources you have in guiding them through the college process (even if it doesn’t end with college). Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your student is to figure out what’s motivating them and provide them with helpful information so they can make the right decision for their future.

Interview for this article was conducted in 2020.

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