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My Son Isn’t Going to College, and It’s Killing Me

You’d think not paying a fortune in tuition would be a blessing, but it’s my worst nightmare

Shattered graduation cap
Paul Spella/Getty

The day after my son was born, my mother came to the hospital and stood over his crib, chanting the names of elite universities. 

“Harvard,” she said. “Stanford. Princeton. Yale. …”

She was only half-joking. College has been the gold standard in my family for generations, and as her grandchildren began to emerge, my mother assumed that trend would continue.

Well, now my mother is dead. So is my father. And this fall, my son dropped out of Arizona State University after six weeks.

My wife and I should have seen it coming. When he was a sophomore in high school, he told us, “I don’t really want to go to college.” But instead of listening to him, I pulled a full third-act Reb Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on him. “There is no other hand!”

I’d given in when he decided to quit karate, bailed on the track team and dropped out of the International Baccalaureate program. But skipping college was a no-go.

“You have to go to college!” I said. “Your grandparents saved money for this. We saved money for this! There’s no way to succeed without going to college!”

“You are wrong!” he yelled back.

And then the pandemic hit. He bailed on high school altogether and scored his few remaining credits in an online compliance program. But his grades were good enough and he had nothing better to do, so he applied to a few schools, and ASU’s business program offered him the most money. Off he went. 

We enjoyed the empty nest for about six weeks. Then the phone calls started coming. Clearly, he was miserable. Our son was home three days later.

I’d shaped my entire childhood around getting into the elite university of my choice. It had been a singular goal. But my son doesn’t care. He’s more than smart enough to go to college, but he just doesn’t want it.

This is something every parent faces at some point. You want your kid to be an athlete, and they turn out to be artistic. You want your kid to be artistic, and they turn out to be an athlete. They might not like the same movies and music that you do, or they might not like movies and music at all. For me, that benchmark is college.

I see other parents my age posting about their children’s amazing education journeys at amazing schools all over the world. But that’s not my destiny, or my son’s. At a certain point, there’s nothing left you can do as a parent but support their choices and hope it turns out okay.

For a few months, my son lived back at home, doing piecemeal work online, driving DoorDash for some extra cash, and generally getting up in my grill. But then, totally on his own initiative, he got a full-time job that he really seems to like. 

Adult self-sufficiency, which is what he wants, appears to be within reach. He might even go back to school someday, though I’m not counting on that. I’m not chanting the names of elite colleges at him. I just want him to be happy.

“I’m proud of you, son,” I said to him the other day.

“That’s all I ever wanted to hear you say,” he said back, with clear sarcasm.

“You know, jackass, some kids wait their whole lives to hear that from their dads.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Kids with no self-esteem.”

In 2005, I wrote an entire book about how I wanted to raise a “cool” kid. The young man I see before me has good taste in a lot of things, a solid social life and a vicious sense of humor. He may not be a college graduate but he’s his own man. Whatever I thought I wanted for him doesn’t matter. 

I’m going to learn to be satisfied, whatever the outcome. My son will always be one of the coolest people I know, even if he thinks his dad’s vision for him is square.