THE BLOG

Are Boys Ready for College?

10/29/2012 05:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 29, 2012

In the past three weeks, three friends of mine who are parents of teenage sons, high school seniors and juniors, have expressed emotions ranging from outright panic to rage, befuddlement, frustration and resignation. In each case there was a young man who was resisting -- sometimes passively and sometimes overtly -- the idea of college.

The passive resistance comes in the form of not getting the applications done or failing classes or sleeping through SATs. It is self-sabotage.

The overt resistance is stating baldy and unequivocally that they are not going to go. Not that they are offering another plan or have any intention to leave home. They have just dug in their toes and said "no college for me!"

In every case the parents are college educated. The sons are smart -- smart enough to know how to push their parents' buttons, for sure. But what is going on here?

College enrollment by males has been in decline for some time. Attention has been focused on low-income and males of color where the high school graduation rates are dismally low, as documented by the Schott Foundation. But the issue extends beyond these boys to boys from backgrounds of privilege as well.

I remember being told, perhaps by my mother, who had an MA in Adolescent Psychology, that boys matured five years later than girls. Recently, I have seen articles expressing a similar viewpoint based on more science than may have been available 40 years ago.

We know that adolescence is a period of resistance to anything emanating from adults in general and parents in particular. But I think there is something else at play here. College has become deeply associated with lifetime success -- particularly in monetary terms and professional goals. We ask students in high school what they will major in once they get to college and implicit in that question is the assumption that this will be a lifelong choice. Yet we know better. Few of us follow paths related to our college majors and fewer still remain in one job for a life time. Yet we reinforce this assumption with our kids.

I think this scares the dickens out of kids -- especially boys for whom the stakes seem higher. Men are still considered primary breadwinners. Success carries higher stakes. I think young men don't want to be pushed at 17 or 18 to make these kinds of choices with all the weight they carry. They are still finding out what they like, what they can do, what is important to them.

I would be a proponent of National Service if the military did not scare me so much. An Americorps/ Peace Corps brand of national service could be a value to young people needing more time to mature. It could be a time to be away from home, have responsibilities with real consequences, engage with diverse populations and figure out personal strengths and interests.

Absent that option, however, what I have been suggesting to my friends is that they try three ideas and let their sons choose what may appeal most to them.

If the son has sabotaged his GPA then a community college can be a way to rebuild and then lead to a four-year school. A similar strategy is to seek a mid-tier school that has an honors program that can be applied to in the second or third year. The student has a chance freshman year to regroup but then can become part of a rigorous intellectual community later on.

The third idea is to do a gap year. It most likely should be an experience away from home. A program like Thinking without Borders takes students far away to countries where their energy and abilities can be applied in service to others. There are many such programs. There may be opportunities in your local area if you check with your city government. The important thing is to look for programs that actually are meaningful and not just extended vacations.

A gap year can be a chance to go deep into a student's area of real interest. One young man had a chance to work as sous-chef in an important NYC restaurant and ended up going to a Culinary Institute so as to follow his passion. Another took himself on a pilgrimage to follow the path of a favorite Spanish poet and wrote his own poetry book as part of the journey, impressing his college admissions committee. Another used his time to work to rescue animals affected by Katrina and went on to engage in the not-for-profit world around animal rights.

For young men, these may be the kinds of experiences that evidence their abilities to be of service, to be manly and purposeful, to take some risks while engaging in self-exploration independent of family demands.

My suggestion to my friends has been to offer their young men options but to lay on them the responsibility to choose a path and do what is needed to pursue it. Parenting can become a co-dependent activity where parents want to take on the tasks of doing the applications, writing the essays and still feeding the "child/man."

This child/man has to take responsibility at some time. What you cannot do is say it is okay to remain non-productive and dependent. None of this is easy -- some have found that a program like Alanon can provide tools for letting go. As my mother in law used to say, "We can best hold on with open hands?"