Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did it right. They left college when they got what they came for. They knew what they wanted. They knew who they were. They came, got after it, and got out. They didn’t earn degrees, but they got something better: an education. And the skills to keep learning for a lifetime.
Most of us don’t share their entrepreneurial brilliance. We’ve needed both an education and a degree to get our start. And the same will be true for our kids. The gap in earnings between those with only a high school diploma and those with a college degree—associate’s, bachelor’s, or beyond—continues to rise.
But too many of our kids are going to college not knowing who they are or what they want. As a result, too many leave without a degree or even much of an education. So what should we do about it?
1. Accept that we must change before they can change. We wouldn’t have the highest college dropout rate in the industrial world if we did more to prepare our children. It’s our job to help them develop the character and maturity they’ll need to be successful. Setting priorities, tracking deadlines, delaying gratification, and developing a work ethic are as important as test scores and GPAs.
2. Help them discover the intersection between their interests and their talents. Most students change majors at least once. That’s not always a bad thing, but it usually adds time and expense to their degree. And it’s often avoidable if they had only received more coaching. So be observant, hold brainstorming sessions (with a large college catalog open, if necessary), and encourage early signs of promise.
3. Encourage them to really try things. Bill Gates said of his teenage computer addiction, “It was hard to tear myself away from a machine at which I could so unambiguously demonstrate success.” Math club and the yearbook committee can be helpful, but professional opportunities are even better. It could be shadowing an engineer at a tech firm, starting a small business, volunteering in a research lab, or filming an amateur movie. Career research is good, but career experience is better. Talents are revealed in the crucible of experience.
4. Treat teens like young adults, not children. As they’re growing up, give them more freedom but expect more responsibility in return. Shift into more of a coaching than a controlling role. When it comes time to decide upon a college, share ownership of the decision and the expense. Students who have skin in the game tend to appreciate it more, attend class more often, and outperform those who (in theory) have more study time.
If we’re intentional in our parenting years, our kids, like Gates and Zuckerberg, can get a first-rate education. They don’t have to be Ivy League dropouts (or graduates), but they do need to know how they’re wired and how higher education fits with who they are and where they’re going. That will give them the focus to get in, get after it, and get out.
Alex Chediak (@chediak) is a professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University and the author of Beating the College Debt Trap, Preparing Your Teens for College, and Thriving at College. Learn more about Alex’s work at his website.