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Options for College-Dropout Boomerang Kids

Alternatives to college plus coping tips for parents

By Bonnie Goldstein

Growing up has never been easy, and these days, it’s tougher than ever. Although nearly 70 percent of U.S. high school graduates register for college, only half will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24. The other half — hundreds of thousands each year — will drop out. Most go home, for one year or several years, and never return to college.

This is particularly distressing in light of the fact that while there are good alternatives to college, a bachelor’s degree still statistically increases lifetime earnings by 54 percent and college grads can expect to earn $800,000 more than counterparts who didn’t go to college.

Why Are Kids Dropping Out of College?

When tuition isn’t an object, why are so many kids so ill-equipped to handle four years of higher education? Carl Pickhardt, an Austin-based psychologist and the author of the book Boomerang Kids, describes a generation of kids who were coddled and whose parents became completely enmeshed in their lives. Too much interdependency, he says, can lead to “more holding on from both sides” and delayed independence.

Try as we’d like, we cannot protect our children from failure, but this generation of parents, perhaps in an overreaction to their post–World War II parents’ strict child-rearing style, created a culture of self-esteem enhancement, where many consequences of inevitable childhood failure have been softened. Missed deadlines are overlooked and “extra credit” is readily offered when work isn’t up to snuff. In a world where no T-ball or softball player ever strikes out and everybody gets a trophy, competition is devalued, if not downright quashed.

The sorts of disappointments that college freshmen have perennially encountered have not changed dramatically, but according to Pew Research Center surveys, today’s student feels less prepared to grapple with homesickness, botched assignments, roommate problems, substance abuse, overspending and romantic disappointments.

What’s more, our struggling economy has all but killed expectations that a good job will be waiting for those who do graduate. There aren't many great ones; most pay poorly and offer few if any benefits. Pickhardt says that while a level of autonomy may be within reach for a young person — they can afford to share rent with roommates and subsist on budget meals — boomerang kids are reluctant to downgrade from the lifestyle comforts available at Mom and Dad’s.

Pickhardt further notes that younger brains have become more conditioned to be entertained than to engage. Emerging adults who've spent their youth glued to computers and smart phones can find it hard to adequately maintain the patience and discipline necessary for the very real-world experience of balancing school with a social life (and perhaps a part-time job) and having to hunker down and do homework without external coaching (i.e., their parents).

Because so many kids are dropping out of college, plenty of families are starting to rethink the whole four-year-degree model or at least the straight-line approach. In their book Not Quite Adults, authors Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray raise the question, “When did becoming nurse practitioners, police officers, child care workers or landscapers take on the taint of the ‘also-ran’ in life?” Cosmetology, dental hygiene and X-ray technology are good options in any economy, and today that kind of training may yield a better career path than the traditional baccalaureate degree.

Think Outside the Classroom

The difficulty so many encounter in their launch toward adulthood isn’t usually due to lack of motivation. According to the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, many of these returned boarders want to get on with their adult lives but are unable to envision a future where they can exist independently.

In 2011, Mayae Lachman, a talented high school clarinet player, applied to the State University of New York at Fredonia’s prestigious music program. Her mother, Suzanne, had commandeered the college application process, scheduling auditions and filling out financial aid forms. When her daughter got accepted, “we were more excited than she was,” Suzanne said.

Mayae felt overwhelmed by the large campus and isolated from what she knew. Uncertain about a path that would lead to a musical career, she withdrew from her music program almost as soon as she arrived at school. By Christmas she decided to drop out altogether.

Back home, living in her old bedroom, she got a part-time job and is taking a few courses at the local community college. Her future is still uncertain, but she's close to her childhood friends, much happier, and grateful her parents have been so supportive.

Reboots like Mayae’s are very common and suggest that knowing how and where to start on the path to autonomy may be the hardest part of all. It's ironic, but many will take their first steps from the comfortable cocoon of their parents' home. If your child is not suited to academic learning, he or she should think outside the classroom and apprentice in a trade. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction is still a field where one can apprentice to acquire skills. Welding, plumbing, carpentry and landscaping are satisfying professions that can be learned on the job and practiced at home.

Gap Year Activities

Although the majority of college quitters never go back, many plan to return at an undefined time. For this group, gap year activities may be the answer. There are numerous programs, ranging in price from staggeringly steep to free.
Participants at Leap Now earn college credit from Antioch University while spending a semester abroad experiencing cultural immersion in India or Latin America. The price tag: $35,000 — and that’s before airfare and incidentals. For about half that price, Carpe Diem offers people over 17 a similarly exotic gap curriculum with academic credit from Portland State University.


Government-sponsored service programs feature training and meaningful supervised community-based work in disaster relief, environmental stewardship and infrastructure improvement. Americorps National Civilian Community Corps instructs young people in first aid and public safety, pays a living allowance of $4,000 for 10 months of service and includes housing, meals and even some medical benefits. Successful completion qualifies participants for a $5,550 tuition grant if they return to college.

Another nonprofit program, CityYear, trains and supervises eligible young people in some 20 urban locations to tutor and interact with at-risk children in public elementary, middle and secondary schools. Volunteers commit to the entire school year and receive a modest stipend to meet expenses. 

Plenty of kids have the motivation and skills to shape their own gap years. Traveling overseas while supporting themselves with "transient" jobs, like working in hostels, helping on farms or wineries, has been a favorite temporary lifestyle since before the Beat poets made it popular to go "on the road."

Real-World Experience

James Altucher, an author, entrepreneur and hedge fund manager, wrote a provocative piece for the Financial Times a few years ago that proposed even more creative ways for a college drop-out to develop a career.

Arguing that the value of collegiate experience has not kept pace with the outlay, Altucher suggested that self-reliant students with intellectual curiosity and inventiveness might do just as well over their lifetime by capitalizing what they would otherwise spend on higher education and getting a head start on their contemporaries in the workplace.

Altucher suggested some risky but highly educational possibilities that resourceful and creative post-adolescent autodidacts might try: start a business, work in a charity, master a sport, do stand-up comedy. This last option will teach them to write, communicate, sell themselves, deal with rejection on a daily basis — and laugh.

How to Cope with a Boomerang Kid

While you’re waiting for your boomerang baby to reconfigure his or her future, here are five things that that worked for me when my son boomeranged, and might make the transition easier for you:

  1. Enjoy them. If you ever wanted to spend more time with your kids, now’s your chance.
  2. Reframe your perspective. They are not your old teenagers anymore; they are your new adult roommates.
  3. Support them emotionally. Remind yourself that they are not maturing in the “wrong” way. Encourage experimentation — for a while. (Eventually, the goal is get them to launch into independent, self-supporting adulthood.)
  4. Support them financially — but set ground rules. If they're working, insist they contribute to household expenses. According to a recent PEW study, 97 percent of boomerang kids help with chores. And whatever you do, don't inadvertently reinforce dependent habits.
  5. Be patient. Your kid has many decades of adult life ahead, and he’ll get there soon enough. Relax.

Bonnie Goldstein, a former producer for ABC News, writes for the Washington Post, Slate and other publications.

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