Signs Your Child Is Not Ready For College

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I was thinking about this topic today as I was reading yet another article about college not being for everyone. I reposted it, saying, “I cannot talk about this enough!” Of course, it’s true. There is no one-size-fits-all option for those graduating high school, and even if college is what your child wants and something he or she can do, ages 17-19 just may not be the right time to start.

As a parent, psychologist, and member of my community, I have seen firsthand what kinds of things can happen when you send a child to college who isn’t ready or who just doesn’t want to be there (I mean for academics). Hint: Things don’t usually go as hoped.
Whether a student attends an Ivy League school, goes in or out-of-state, gets any sort of scholarship, attends 20 minutes or 8 hours from home, lives on or off-campus, college is expensive! Tuition, room and board, fees, books and other materials, money to get to and from school, and of course spending money are all part of it. But add in failed classes, course or school withdrawals, money being spent wildly (perhaps on mom or dad’s credit card), or even unforeseen medical bills or legal fees, and the cost of college can increase dramatically (with no guaranteed degree, career, or future in sight).
And to be honest, your child going to college and just not being successful, or having to come home early due to emotional or other issues isn’t even that bad, relatively speaking. Sadly, there are more and more stories of college students dying by suicide, overdose, or alcohol poisoning, or being hurt or killed in various types of accidents. I’m not saying none of these students were ready for college or shouldn’t have been there. Often times accidents are just that, and they can happen to anyone. But what I am saying is that risk is increased- particularly for those living away at school- for bad things to happen when a student is either not focused on school or having issues that interfere in some way.

At least some of the time, there are red flags that parents just ignore. And I am not blaming these parents! We all want our children to succeed and we want to believe they have what it takes to do what it is they say they want to do, and we want to believe them when they tell us that they will step up or that they can handle it. We often don’t want to be the bad guy (or girl), either, and tell our child that he or she isn’t ready to go away, so we’re not going to support it (at least not yet). We want our child to have the same opportunities as friends and peers. And lastly, none of us can predict the future, so even when we genuinely feel good about our child’s ability to do college, we could be wrong.

I reflected on my experience and knowledge of this phenomenon and came up with a list of signs or red flags, so to speak, that college may not be for your child, at all, or at least just not yet. I’ll list them and elaborate a little, then discuss some alternatives and compromises to going away to college. Here goes…

1)Your child “hates school”. If your son says this, has said it over the years, or his behavior reflects this attitude, what makes you think that four more years of school is a good idea? He may need to mature or gain some experience working, particularly in a less-than-glamorous job, to have the chance to see that school isn’t that bad. That, or perhaps he can find another path that doesn’t involve school or at least has less of it or only classes that he may be interested in.

2)Poor or low grades. If your child doesn’t get good or passing grades in high school, odds are that that this will continue in college- especially with little support, no oversight, and a lot of freedom. One can’t simply flip a switch and become motivated. Doing well in school involves learning good habits and developing a work ethic. By college, you have it or you don’t (or at least you need to take more time to develop it).

3)Low effort, not motivated. See #2. Unless your child has a learning issue, low IQ, or a disorder or disability that interferes, poor grades are typically the result of poor effort. And if your child does have any of those issues, then he or she is going to need some extra support to succeed in a college environment (just as they did in high school).

4)Lax attitude or “just not getting it”. This just isn’t going to translate to success unless it changes, so going away to school is a big gamble in this case. Often by the time your child gets it, it is too late.

5)Frequent missed assignments. If this happens, there is either an issue of some kind, or it’s just not important to your child to get his work in. If your child would rather watch TV, sleep, play video games, or hang out with friends- why wouldn’t you expect this to continue in college? What’s going to be different?

6)Your child is not realistic. Whether it’s about her abilities or what she wants to do with her life, you need to have a realistic sense of who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and what you’re going to do at college and beyond. Dreaming is perfectly ok, but your ideas have to have some grounding in reality. See previous items.

7)Your child doesn’t study. If he gets A’s and B’s without studying, this is fairly typical for high school. Either he wasn’t challenged enough or didn’t care to go the extra mile (if he got B’s and could have had A’s). The game changes in college, though, and students always say that they had to start studying (maybe even learn how) if they had not done so before. If this happens, a student may very well be successful. But if not?

8)Your child has no idea or plan for the future other than “going to college”, getting a “good job”, or “making a lot of money”. I think this is different from being undecided and surely many college students change majors or don’t know right away. How could you at 18? What I mean is that a prospective college student ought to at least have some ideas or some interests, or else a desire to take different courses or to seek out information to figure it out- rather than a “I’ll just go to college and it will come to me” attitude. If that is not the case, it would give me pause about sending my child away, particularly if any of the other items apply.

9)Your child has a history of behavior problems. Mostly I’m talking about disciplinary (suspensions or expulsion) or legal (arrests, probation, etc.) issues. I’m not talking about a child who makes a mistake, pays the price, and learns from it- but those who are characteristically impulsive, prone to making poor decisions, or who just aren’t adjusting their behavior in light of the consequences. Again, how could you expect such a child to go away by himself and start making better choices? To assume so would be risky and perhaps dangerous.

10)Your child has had substance abuse problems. I’m not referring to a child who took a few beers from you one time or who got caught smoking pot at their friend’s sleepover- unless this behavior was habitual and he or she didn’t respond to any consequences or intervention. I’m talking about more severe cases- with repeated use, consequences, dangerous behavior, poor decision-making, and so on. Going away without any oversight and having all that freedom, chances are this is not only going to continue, but it will escalate. Also a risky and potentially dangerous proposition.

11)Your child has not applied. If you have to threaten your child, keep reminding, or sit her down to complete her college applications, there is your proof that she is either not ready or it’s not that important to her to go. If she misses the deadline, then the situation will handle itself! Just please, resist the urge to do this for your child. If she won’t fill out an application, how is she going to sit and write a paper? Or study for a test? Or get up for class?

12)And this is related to most (maybe all) of the others… Your child was successful (at least on paper) in high school, but only because you did too much for him… made sure he got his work done or studied, advocated for him to his teachers, intervened if he got into trouble, you woke him up in the morning, or you just did everything for him or did everything in your power to save him from consequences. There are plenty of these parents out there, and you have to be honest with yourself. A child who has had this experience simply isn’t going to have what it takes to succeed in college. To go from doing virtually nothing to everything at once?! Not realistic, and mom or dad won’t be there to save the day!

Of course, each case is unique, and a child who fits any of these may very well go away to school and do well- or at least okay. But by and large, these are well-known red flags that parents should not ignore as they prepare to make such a big decision. Please know that college is not the only option for your child, or at least not going away to college or going to college right away.

Here are a few options that could be a better fit.

1)Taking a “gap year” (or more). This means taking a year off from school, but it can involve anything from:

  • working part-time or full-time at home
  • living somewhere else for a time and perhaps working (for example, in another place with family like an aunt and uncle or grandparents)
  • travelling
  • volunteering, as in organizations like the Peace Corps or City Year, or perhaps through a missionary organization
  • spending a year pursuing a passion like high-level sports or performance

2)Trade school. Your child may be more interested in going to less school, working with his or her hands, taking only classes of interest or directly related to a career, or may view this as an opportunity for a good career with less student debt.

3)The military. Certainly the military offers an alternative to college and opportunities to learn independence or skills that could translate into a good career, in the military or outside of it. They also offer money for college, whether your child doesn’t think college is for him at first but changes his mind, he is weary of student debt, or he just isn’t ready at 18.

4)Other training programs. Unions and some larger companies offer apprenticeships or other opportunities for on-the-job training in different careers.

5)Community college. Community college is easy to get into if your child’s grades were less than stellar in high school. It is also inexpensive and local, so one need not go away to go there. This is a great option to try different classes, see if college is a fit, or to prove that your child is ready to do the work of college.

6)Commute to a local college. This is more expensive than community college, and your child has to get accepted, but it could be a compromise between no college or community college and going away. This could allow for a cheaper option and more support and oversight, but also gives your child the chance to be “in college”, perhaps with some friends. If successful, he or she may then live on campus the following year or could transfer to and live at another school.

There are likely more options yet, but these would be important for parents to consider and to talk with their child about. If your child has shown he or she isn’t ready or may not want to do college, considering these options doesn’t make you the bad guy at all. It means you’re smart and realistic, you’re able to see your child in an objective way, and you are looking out for his or her best interest. Wishful thinking or trust without any track record of past success don’t translate to success in college. And just as college isn’t the only path to success, it also isn’t an entitlement- whether you are paying 100%, helping to pay for it, or your child is going to pay for it himself. Your child has 4 years of high school to get ready and to prove he can do it. If he doesn’t do that, it’s not your fault. And it may not be his fault either! But readiness or lack thereof is the point.

Take care,

Dr. Matthews

Comments or questions? Feel free to contact me.

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: .

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