Earning college credit is a lot like dating. I had this thought as I listened to one of my sons consider the possibility of getting more serious with his girlfriend. As I often do, I found a parallel to earning college credit and a degree. With college credit, like dating, there comes a tipping point where “keeping options open” can become a competing goal with what you hope to achieve.
Getting into college is easy. Getting out is hard.
It is HARD to graduate. A large percentage of students who start will never finish, and of those that do, it can take them 6 or more years to earn a 4 year degree. A good bit of “why” that happens is inside your control. While your teen is in high school, earning college credit can serve to bring the goalpost closer, assuming you don’t spend too much time “keeping options open.”
When we arrange for our teens to earn their first college credits, the stakes aren’t high. Usually it’s a single class or a CLEP test, and the cost is usually a small fraction of what they’d pay if they waited until college to take the course. In some cases, it might even be free. Our first college credits are a great introduction to the world of college, and give us an opportunity to explore majors, careers, degrees, certificates, apprenticeships, and the many exciting paths available to our teen as they go through this transition. It’s a metric for our teen, measuring them against “hard” schoolwork and seeing how they do. While we don’t want them to fail a class, or get a bad grade, none of us believe that one bad grade is the end of the world. So in the beginning, it’s ok to experiment with classes and credits. It’s fun to pick classes that excite our teens and line up well with their interests or high school plan.
As with dating that may grow into a relationship (or not!) there is a reflective process that goes along with earning college credit. We begin to consider whether or not the credits will mesh with our teen’s future goals, and how their success and struggles are forming the targets we need to hit.
Will these credits work at a specific college?
Will these credits be ok if she changes her mind? Her major?
Do we have the budget to keep on this path?
All of these questions are good because they represent the wisdom a parent brings to the process! Many students don’t have the benefit of strong parental involvement, but unlike a professional guidance counselor who might serve a large group of students, I believe parents make the best guidance counselors because they care the most, they have invested the most, and they have the most concern for their teen’s future success. Parents know a teen’s strengths, but strengths are easy. Parents have unique wisdom about our teen’s weaknesses, and that kind of knowledge is powerful.
A wise parent is constantly reconciling the questions of “keeping options open” and “planning for the future” against “is that their calling/gift/passion?” That’s usually the point that I get an email from a parent in a panic. So let me leave you with this: Those questions don’t mean anything is wrong, it means that you’re doing it right!
You ARE asking the right questions.
You ARE considering the opportunities in front of you.
You ARE using wisdom. Those questions ultimately help you and your teen make a decision.
Accumulating too many credits can be a problem when you don’t have a goal. Like dating, you have to have a conversation about whether or not it’s time to take things to the next level. This is a totally unscientific and unofficial guide, but as your teen approaches 30 college credits, my advice is to have “the conversation” about what target you hope to hit. Instead of just “accumulating random credit” after 30 credits, you should start narrowing down your goals significantly. Even if you haven’t selected an occupation or college or major, you CAN start eliminating at this point. By this time you should have an idea of things your teen DOESN’T want to do for a career. Welder? No. Doctor? No. Musician? No. Good, that’s a start.
Here are 3 big questions that can help you zero in on a target by ruling out some of the others.
- Does your teen enjoy math and are they good enough to finish Calculus 2? If they answered “no” answer to either parts of that question, you’ve ruled out a lot of STEM careers. Look at degrees that are Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts as a starting point. Associate of Science and Bachelor of Science may have steep math requirements.
- Is your teen pressing you or have a sense of urgency that they want to start work sooner rather than later? If so, look at Associate of Applied Science degrees, Apprenticeship, bootcamps, or trade school. All of those are specifically targeted toward work-skills and will rarely have a lot of extra classes in English, history, psychology, etc.
- Thinking about this next phase of life (after high school) is your teen excited to jump in, or stressed about making a mistake? A teen who feels excited to jump in has a confidence in their plan and a peace of mind that it will work out. A teen who is stressed or nervous is unsure that they are making the right decision and possibly needs more time.
If you’re approaching 30 college credits, pause. Reflect. Have the conversation. If your teen is ready to lock in a target, then do that! If not, then slow the college credit process to line up well with what you were going to do in high school anyway, and allow a bit more time to settle into a goal.