Double Take: Should parents send sub-par students to junior college first?

Dear Dr. Wes and Gabe: My son hasn’t done too great in high school. He denies responsibility for this, reminding us that his is one of the top public schools in the state and he shouldn’t be expected to be in the top 10 percent. But he’s not even in the top 50 percent. We have a 529 college fund that will cover most of the cost of the four-year state university he badly wants to attend, but we don’t want to waste it if he’s no more serious about college than he has been high school. His dad and I want him to go to junior college first to prove that he has what it takes.

Wes: I’d like to tell you to give your son a chance to prove himself at the college of his choice and there are probably some good arguments in support of that position. Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance, especially from one’s parents? Unfortunately, based on a lot of experience in this arena, I have to side with you and his dad. We have a tremendous dropout rate in our nation’s colleges and it takes more than wanting to go to make a successful student. A lot more. High school motivation and effort are good predictors of early college success. The exceptions are very bright kids who just didn’t fit into the high school environment. But far too many kids imagine themselves that way when in fact they just lack the discipline, focus, and maturity to get to college graduation.

Double Take columnists Gabe Magee and Dr. Wes Crenshaw

A big reason we have so much student loan debt in this nation is because late teens, very young adults, and their parents, think of the FAFSA as an ATM machine. But that can only payoff if one selects a major with good job prospects and big paychecks. It turns disastrous quickly for kids who borrow high and elect an interesting but low paying, low demand major–and there are a bunch of them. Even worse are the kids who don’t graduate and still have to pay back a huge, non-dischargeable debt.

The 529 money was set-aside for your son’s education, but it’s still under your control. If he insists on going to his preferred college, require him to pay an out-of-pocket copay of 10 percent to 25 percent of the total cost for the first semester. Then, if he does well, you could pay back that copay out of his 529. Have him do the same thing for every semester thereafter. If he doesn’t put forth the effort, he’ll be out his share and you’ll have your answer. I’ve done this many times and it works great. The more skin your son has in the game, the more he’ll show up and take advantage of his investment.

Gabe: Responsibility cannot be taught. You either pick it up or you don’t. I am not saying that your son cannot be a responsible student or person, but I agree with you and Dr. Wes that you should let him prove himself in junior college before sending him off to a four-year school. If he fails to impress or barely meets expectations in JUCO, there’s no reason to subsidize his education right now, not only for your wallet’s sake but also his sake.

Of course, if he first goes to the college he prefers, his achievement may improve. But the odds are that it won’t and his grades will slip. What happens then? Depending on the institution, he may risk academic probation and eventually, expulsion. Even if it doesn’t get that bad, he’s wasting his time and money.

Not learning anything and failing classes doesn’t add value to his current or future life. This is why colleges are sometimes called “Twenty grand adult daycare.” His college may be enjoyable for him, but without his dedication it won’t be enriching him very much.

While the mantra that all people should have access to college does have merit, students can only see the fruits of an education if they actually put work into it. Perhaps for your son, the most enriching course of action is one where he learns, involuntary or not, responsibility for self. Don’t simply kowtow to your son here. Be sure the ball is firmly in his court.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.