By Amy MacLachlan

After investing thousands of dollars and three years of his life toward a degree, with the finish line in sight, Winnipeg’s Harrison Brown dropped out. “It turns out I wanted something different,” he says. Even harder than deciding to drop out was when Brown faced another difficult task — telling Mom. Thankfully for him she was supportive of his decision.

“It’s a huge decision for kids, and for parents, too,” Carol Brown says. “After all, not every student at age 18 is going to have a life goal. I told Harrison he had to pick a career and get a post-secondary education. He had to figure out what his interests and what his strengths are.” And, after doing some research and even sitting in on a class or two, he decided to enroll in a two-year college I.T. program starting this fall.

Brown is far from alone. Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that about 14 per cent of first-year university students drop out, while a recent article in The Telegraph reporting on universities in the UK said about one in 15 or 6.7 per cent of first-year students dropped out last year.

Student Support
So what’s a parent to do? Vancouver-based parenting expert Kathy Lynn says supporting your child’s decision is the first step. “Some kids need a break when they finish high school. Some are older and more mature than others, some are ready to leave home, but some are not. You need to respect your child and where they’re at.”

You also need to breathe. “Don’t freak out,” says Lynn. “There’s the tendency to think, ‘you went through all of this, you were accepted’, and so on. But if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Listen to them and respect their decision.”

Next, get to the root of the problem. “They need to be clear on the reasons behind their decision. Look at them and say something like , ‘talk to me about why you’re doing this.’” Something else to bear in mind? “You’re not doing your kid any favours by letting them hang around the house for a year, drinking beer on the couch and getting their laundry done by Mom,” Lynn states. “They need to apply to a trade school, get a job, volunteer — something. They need to have a plan. They’re adults; they can’t just hang around.”

Finding Their Way

Luckily there are many options for forging ahead — and parents can help their son or daughter figure out what fits best. “One thing we can do is set up informational interviews for them with friends in different kinds of jobs,” says Lynn. “Most senior-level people will give a young person a 10-minute informational interview with no issue, and these can be very helpful.”

Looking to college is also smart, as they offer innovative programs, a shorter time commitment, smaller class sizes, creative, hands-on learning, and internships — ultimately offering students the practical experience many employers want. Some also offer support services for prospective students to help them determine what interests them — free of charge — before even applying.

Jennifer Powell, student recruitment officer at Winnipeg’s Red River College, says the school serves up a variety of supportive options to help students choose what program is best for them. For instance, Red River College’s counseling department offers career explanation and exploration, which is also available through an online tool kit. “There’s also academic advising, which is good for students who have narrowed things down to a couple of options,” she says. Prospective students can also take campus tours, where they might see something they want to investigate further.

“There are so many kids who don’t know what they want to do,” Powell says, “so it’s about getting them engaged in the exploration process, learning about themselves, and taking advantage of the information out there.”

Another route to consider is an apprenticeship. The Ontario Masonry Training Centre, for example, offers in-school apprenticeship training for the masonry industry. They teach and certify highly skilled workers who are trained in quality, productivity and safety. Since fewer students today are opting to learn a trade, demand for quality workers is high, leading to many job opportunities. “You have to enjoy hard work, and being able to problem-solve and accept criticism of the work you do is also a plus,” says lead instructor Mario De Nicola. “But satisfaction comes with creating and building something that is tangible. Your work isn’t lost in a database. It’s a great source of pride.”

His advice for parents: “You can’t push a profession on your child. You need to know your child and their strengths and weaknesses. If you see that there’s an area they’re leaning toward, encourage him or her to try it and see if there’s any interest before they commit.”

Carol couldn’t agree more. “Have them take courses here and there to try to figure out what they want to do so it’s not a waste of time and money. Because ultimately, university is not an inexpensive venture.”