Image: Paul Marchioni
Courtesy of Gretchen Stahlman
Instead of going to college, Paul Marchioni, 18, wants to enroll in a martial arts school to pursue his dream of becoming a professional fighter.
Special to
updated 3/3/2008 8:23:35 AM ET 2008-03-03T13:23:35

At Fairport High School in upstate New York, the class of 2008 has been buzzing for months about SAT scores, college apps and the rapidly approaching acceptance letters. But senior Paul Marchioni, 18, is planning to take the road less traveled: Instead of college, he wants to enroll in a local martial arts school to pursue his dream of becoming a professional fighter.

“My dad wants me to go to college — he’s a very 'education-is-the-greatest-aspect-of-life' kind of guy,” Marchioni says. But despite the lectures from his father and the taunts of his classmates, he has no regrets about his decision. “I’ll be doing something better,” he says confidently.

As college acceptances arrive this spring, some parents who always assumed their child would attend college may instead be seeing those dreams fall short, leaving them disappointed, even embarrassed, and fearful for their child’s future.

“It’s scary to be a parent and think, ‘What’s going to happen to my kid without that degree?’ says Mark Kuranz, past president of the American School Counselor Association, and lead counselor for the Racine Unified School District in Racine, Wis. “We’ve done a really good job of selling that the 'American Dream' can only be accomplished through a four-year degree.”

The reality, of course, is far different. Only some two-thirds of seniors nationwide will enroll in college next fall, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And experts say only 30 percent of jobs today actually require a four-year degree.

Still, parents are justified in some of their concerns. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with a college degree earned on average $54,689 in 2005, while those with a high school diploma earned only $29,448. Over a 40-year career, that spread would add up to nearly a million dollars in lost earnings. And studies show that a break in education very often does mean the student will never return.

Hear them out
So, what to do if your teen approaches you about detouring off the college path?

First, listen carefully to their reasons why, advises Lindsay Weisner, a psychologist in New York City who counsels families. “Be open-minded,” she urges. “Maybe you want your kid to do what you did — or what you wish you should have done. Maybe you’re wrong — maybe they are making a decision that’s better for them.”

In fact, educators point out there are downsides of insisting kids go against their wishes: the hefty tuition cost; the high dropout rate, estimated as high as 45 percent; and the wasted time, if they ultimately decide on a career path with different requirements.

“Why should you go to college and stumble around? It’s expensive,” Kuranz says. “Maybe you ought to do some things where you discover that working for 10 bucks an hour ain’t all that.”

After earning his high school degree, Craig Rutherford, 23, decided not to pursue college, and has been working an IT job in Nashville, Tenn., while trying to break into the music business as a sound tech.

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“People act like it's just a given that you'll go — like it's the next in line after birth, childhood, puberty, high school, then BAM!” he laments. “Every day I work with people who went to college and now have really boring jobs. Is that what college gets you?”

His parents still have “mixed emotions” about his decision. “Not having that 'piece of paper' means he will be limited on opportunities, and, of course, we don't want that for him,” says his mother, Theresa Rutherford. “But we know beyond a shadow of doubt that he will be successful. His character and work ethic will speak for themselves.”

“Not every kid wants to study Shakespeare,” points out Harlow Unger, author of the career guidebook “But What If I Don’t Want to Go to College?” He encourages vocational schools as a viable alternative, for training to be an electrician or a medical technician, for example. “Our whole culture demeans the trades, which is tragic.”

On the flip side, there are some academically oriented seniors who graduate feeling too burned out to head straight to campus. For these students, deferring college and taking what is known as a “gap year” might be a solution.

“Sometimes, kids need to step away from the race for a moment,” says Bob Gilpin of Time Out Associates, an interim year consulting group based in Milton, Mass., that has counseled 3,000 kids on gap years. “Doing a gap year gives them a break to rebuild their batteries, refresh and recharge.”

This little-known option has been long favored by Australian, New Zealand and British students and is growing in acceptance stateside, especially among elite schools such as Philips Andover Academy and Harvard University .

To parents unfamiliar with the concept, the suggestion may sound alarmingly unfocused at first, says Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, based in Princeton, N.J. “The parent is thinking, `What are you going to do, stay home and play computer games?’” In reality, these programs tend to be highly structured, setting up internships, course work and volunteerism around the globe.

Rebecca Sigel, a 2006 Milton Academy graduate, deferred college to spend a year backpacking in the Southwest, farming in New Zealand and working in the Galapagos. Now a freshman at Brown University, she touts the value of her year off. “I come at my academics from a much broader perspective — more apt to ask questions, more informed on the specifics of what I study.”

Best for the child — or parent?
Ultimately, whether a young adult heads straight to college, takes a break or never pursues that degree, parents need to analyze whether their own expectations are getting in the way of what’s truly best for their child. 

“Parents think of a college admission as a final grade on their parenting — and, of course, it’s not,” says psychologist Michael Thompson, the Arlington, Mass.-based author of “The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life.”

“The goal of every parent should be to send a child out into the world who is independent, loving, productive and moral," Thompson says. "Does going to college immediately after high school guarantee those goals? The answer is no.”

That’s what Marchioni’s mother, Gretchen Stahlman, a tech writer who is pursuing her masters’ degree, firmly believes.

“I really give Paul a lot of credit for daring to be different,” she says. “All those times when I told him to ignore what everyone else was doing, that he should pursue what he felt most passionate about — I guess he was listening, after all.”

Melissa Schorr is a Boston-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, Reuters Health, Working Mother, Self, GQ and People. She is the author of the young adult novel "Goy Crazy."

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