College Options for Low Achievers

Parent Q&A

  • Community college vs 4-yr college for low motivation senior?

    (4 replies)

    My son, who is a high school senior, is bright but has never been very interested in school.  He has always basically done the minimum needed to get decent grades (A's and B's) but spends little time on homework, studying for tests, or working in advance on long-term projects.  He's also highly disorganized and refuses to use a calendar or plan his work ahead.  He shows absolutely no initiative when it comes to school, and not much even when it comes to the sports he ostensibly loves.  He worked with a college coach to identify potential fields of interest, prep for the ACT, and write two essays (didn't come up with much in terms of interests, did very well on the ACT, and the essays are OK but not great).  If it weren't for my substantial "help" I'm not sure he'd even be getting his applications in to colleges in time.

    From talking to friends and relatives, it seems that a lot of boys are in a similar place at this age, including my husband and several male cousins who eventually did well once they started to take school seriously.  I'm wondering if it might be better for him to go to a community college for two years, rather than head straight for a 4-yr. college or university.  I'd like him to experience the social aspects of starting out as a freshman away from home, but not if he's going to flounder so much that he ends up dropping out.

    I'd love to hear from parents who've been in a similar situation and find out what their kids did and how it worked out.  All advice greatly appreciated.

    My senior son sounds somewhat similar.  I'm making this up as I go along, but in his case I told him I would not get involved in the college process except when asked.  I decided the hassle and organizational challenge of applying to college would be a good litmus test for if he's ready to go. Maybe not a perfect one, but if it isn't important enough for him to get his act together (and he's a kid who can accomplish amazing things when motivated) then that's a sign he isn't ready.  It's too early to say how this will turn out, but he knows he owns this journey completely, and that there's no shame in working instead if he isn't ready to go.  So far he's applied to one and plans to apply to a few more, but the jury's still out on if he'll pull it all together to be ready to go this fall.

    I know of too many kids who go because they are overly encouraged/helped or because they can't think of anything else to do and it's just not the right choice for them. It's a waste of college and family resources to send them when they aren't ready, in my opinion.  In my experience the people who get the most out of college are the ones who have to struggle to get there (they know why they are there), so maybe I'm trying to give him that opportunity to feel the struggle and own the reward, if it works, or to not go down that path yet if he isn't ready.

    Absolutely "encourage passively",  to attend a Jr. College rather than a 4 year.   My fearful, not particularly mature, procrastinator of a son was accepted after high school into Cal State Long Beach where he basically skipped most of his classes, made no real friends, didn't care about the "college experience"/hated dorm living, etc.  After that debacle and me still paying for an education he didn't truly want, we encouraged him to go to the the local community college and as time went on, he became more interested in heading off (transfer student) to a UC.  MUCH BETTER! 

     I just don't believe that most boys are mature enough at 18/19 to leave home or even know where to begin in life.  All is working out very well now.  He has a roommate (his best friend from high school--had to be "safe"/familiar for him), is still a homebody, but pretty much knows what he wants to do on the career/school front and is more mature now.   My suggestion is to not put too much pressure on him on anything! It only makes them defensive and in turn they fight back on parental "pressures".   I strongly believe that most boys come around and figure out things in their own way, on their own time, eventually.  Good luck!

    I wonder if your son would be interested in a trade education. Cal Maritime Academy is a Cal State University and its engineer careers put the kids under some academic training but mostly it is hands-on. It is a small campus and they have strict rules of conduct because they prepare the kids for jobs that entail safety and security of systems, ships, and logistics. And their graduates get very well paid jobs soon after graduation. Take a tour and find out more about it. It's a great school and it's nearby.

    My son was exactly like yours, not overtly smart but definitely with the brains if he applied himself. But he was scattered and uninterested in anything academic. He was a B-C kind of kid and boasted that he rarely studied during high school and definitely did not spend real time for homework or projects in his high school years. Fortunately for him he chose and got accepted to Cal Maritime. He had some hiccups with his academics but he did graduate last year, is now well employed and loves his job.

    For my son community college would have been a black hole because he was not focused and was not ready to navigate what is basically an independent study. In my opinion to succeed in a community college you have to know what you want, stay focused and find friends who have similar goals as yours. Knowing my son we believed he would have associated with kids that were not academically inclined. Cal Maritime provided a focused environment, only 5 careers to choose from, not the sea of options and set courses that were determined buy your choice of career path. For my son that worked great.

    I agree with you that freshmen year is important. Lifelong friendships are formed then, and the students get a sense of living 'independently' away from home. Both my kids loved those first years as they started the process of separation. Whichever choice you/him make, my suggestion is make sure he has all the required courses to apply to a 4 year college, and apply. You can always decide last minute to go the community college route. Also, if he ends up going to a 4 year college, monitor his academics closely. Get him to authorize you to access all his records immediately after starting school. Will be glad to discuss more personally if you are interested. Much luck.

    Consider not sending your son to college right away but rather putting it off for a year and have him do a gap-year program, or even just work at a job for a year. My son is the same, also 18, also not interested in school, but he didn't even make the effort to get good grades. Instead of going straight to college, we put him in a gap-year program, he's learning so much, is maturing and growing, and getting clear on what's important to him. And he's spending his time with a group of young people who are going to college, which is great, he's learning that going to college is important. If a gap-year program isn't possible for your family - they can be expensive - just working for a year is enormously educational. He'll learn the value of work, of earning an income, and of what he's capable of. He may also learn the importance of being organized, and of applying himself when the approval of someone other than his parents is at stake. I say think outside the box. 

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Archived Q&A and Reviews


Options for son who is not a good student

Aug 2005

Our son's in his senior year. He's not a particularly good student, doesn't test well, and is not motivated as an individual learner. However, he just came home from a fantastic summer experience in Asia with a group of teens, traveling, living in a village, doing community service work. It was (by his own admission) the best thing he's ever done and is now sad to be returning to ''normal.'' I'm looking for programs/colleges that can duplicate that group experience and experiential learning, as well as counselors who can assess our son's strengths and suggest some good post-high school choices for him to consider.

We've explored for our son, and we're very impressed with the staff. We've dropped this possibility for a host of reasons, but it's well worth checking out for your son. has hundreds of internships for young people as well as two programs that offer college credit in cooperation with New College - one for a semester and another for a year, and both integrate internships abroad.

We had our son take a series of aptitude tests at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, Inc. There are 2 days of testing, I think it was about 2 or 3 hours of testing each day. Located in San Francisco (near BART). Then a week or so later parents and teenager go in for the results. Receive scores on a number of aptitudes (NOT intelligence testing...but what your natural skills and abilities are). You also get a booklet describing the various aptitudes and a 150 page book ''learning to use your aptitudes.'' The testing is pricey ($600), but I thought well worth it. It confirmed and clearly defined some things we ''fuzzily'' knew about our 18 year old son. The counselor gives examples of types of jobs/careers in which the ''testee'' may be happy, AND those which would be a bad fit. This organization has been around for a long time. My husband and his siblings were tested by them in 1970. Good luck.
a concerned parent

This is in response to the parent seeking advice about Alternative colleges and counselors. I know of some great alternatives to the normal colleges. These include: The Evergreen State College, Reed College, Antioch, Hampshire, The New College, and the New School of Social Research. These schools often stress experiential learning, international travel, and putting theory into practice. Many students with labels such as ADD or ADHD often find their learning differences greatly reduced - or even completely gone - when they find school environments which work well with how they learn. It's all about context.

In response to the above, may I say that Reed College, where I just dropped off my Albany High graduate daughter, is not really an alternative college, but rather is an old-style school where the emphasis is on academic achievement. The classes are small (maximum 14 students) and the academic program is rigorous, but the atmosphere is very supportive for the kids and the curriculum caters to a love of learning.

BTW, there are many of us who do not accept ADD/ADHD as illnesses and who feel that such problems are related to students who, for whatever reason, are not being adequately stimulated by their learning activities. A place like Reed College is often a solution to this problem, and does not require drugs! Best, Bob


Not Harvard Bound



Does anyone have recommendations for private college counselors. Hate to have to pay for something I feel the school should offer but it might be money well spent. (We're not Harvard bound, we may be DVC bound, but would like someone able to discuss the options.)

Is your son or daughter 4-year bound eventually? What are his/her interests? Both DVC and College of Alameda have a very high transfer rate to the four-year system. Students can also take courses at multiple community colleges and they will appear on one transcript.

If your son or daughter is going to community college for general requirements, then the place they feel most comfortable will work well. Beyond that, different community colleges have excellent programs that have a specific focus, i.e. Alameda for fashion design, Merritt for horticulture, SF City College for culinary, etc. A few years ago, quite a few students went to Chabot (Hayward) and Ohlone (Fremont) as well as the Peralta District Schools (Vista, Laney, Merritt and Alamenda) and DVC in Pleasant Hill and CCC in Richmond, both which have excellent drama programs.

The nice thing that Vista does in their course schedule that I haven't seen at any other school is letting you know whether a course is acceptable for the UC system or the CSU (Cal State University) system. Their spring schedule can be picked up at 2020 Milvia.

Flora Russ, Berkeley High School Computer Technologies Department