How to Get the College Experience without Campus Life

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College seems like a straightforward path to adulthood. Your child can move to a new city with readily available housing, built-in opportunities to make new friends, and a support system designed for young people, ages 18 to 21. During these four years, approximately, your kid can make the transition from clueless high school student to savvy career starter. The college experience allows for mistakes, failures, reinventions, second chances, course changes and corrections.

So, now that the traditional college experience is nonexistent for so many students, how will kids grow up? And when they do get older, will they be prepared for life afterward?

Ways to Get the College Life Experience

I won't delve into whether the traditional college experience is the ideal or even a good way to mature. But I will consider a few experiences that can help kids grow up without the traditional college life. Here are some that come to mind:

Get a job

This one may be predictable, but still useful if you can get work. Even seemingly random jobs and internships teach your child something. The lessons may be simple yet valuable: how to show up for work on time, interact with coworkers, or follow instructions, even when they don't make sense.

One of my summer jobs taught me everything I needed to know for a college course on Organizational Behavior (OB in business lingo). The workplace culture was confusing. I read the book our supervisor required, but was the only one who did. Following the basic rules was easy for me, but interpreting workplace cues was elusive. The lively book discussion I imagined never materialized. Back at school, in OB class, I recalled what I learned on the job. On the mid-term and final exams, I responded to prompts in a way that was the antithesis of my boss's approach.

My friends have also gleaned unexpected bonuses from dull positions. One parlayed customer interaction and staff supervision at a frozen dessert shop to a pharmaceutical sales position. Another spent a summer as a clerk for a local dry cleaners, which made her valuable to a government agency in monitoring the introduction of a new, safer chemical in this industry. Yet another took a part-time gig in store management to prepare for a corporate leadership role.

Regular, wage-earning jobs that may seem like dead ends may never amount to much. But they can sometimes lead to experience that can be intentionally or serendipitously leveraged.

Cultivate life skills

I wish I could say I taught my kids all the life skills they needed to thrive during and after college. You may have taken on these tasks from the time your children were young until they packed up for their first semester away from home. Either way, here are some life skills that may be learned at school from peers, professors, or parents and through trial-and-error:

How to plan meals, shop for ingredients, prepare meals, and clean up. This process could involve budgeting, both dollars and time. It could also cover creativity in shopping at grocery stores, farmers' markets, road-side stands, and country stores as well as buying directly from farmers and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

How to maintain a home, inside and out. These skills may involve appliance fixes and deep cleaning as well as gardening and landscaping. You might add things like locating the fuse box and dealing with a blown fuse, a couple of tasks I learned in college as a Resident Advisor with campus housing. If there's a home project waiting to be done, vetting and engaging contractors is a skills to be learned.

How to invest. This skill could be life changing for many. Both of my sons learned from me as well as their friends in college, some of whom learned from business professors. My older son especially liked my stock valuation spreadsheet to consider individual stocks. In turn, he offered company insights from a millennial's point of view. He suggested NVIDIA to me when it was trading in the high 20s and early 30s; I got excited about its valuation and beautiful balance sheet. Today, my $7,000 that laid dormant in a so-so investment is worth more than $95,000, just a few years after our collaboration. Not everything we've touched together has done so well, but we've gained a lot from each other's perspectives.

Organize gatherings

Organizing people and events is rewarding itself. But the byproduct is the thrill of deepening and widening a circle of friends and acquaintances. Do both well and you've created the ultimate college experience.

Social distanced outings like hiking trips, kayaking excursions, or early-morning urban walks, can aid mental and physical well being. Done with family, these could also bring you closer in ways you may welcome but not have anticipated.

Virtual gatherings can also be planned and hosted. A friend is hosting racial equity dialogues; a cousin is running digital check-ins; I'm participating in book club sessions. A college kid could gain perspectives from current or former classmates, older or younger family members, and friends or acquaintances on current events, local history, family history, bestselling and/or thought-provoking books, or whatever expertise or interests those who gather may possess.

Take Nontraditional Classes

If your child is taking a full load of online college classes, this suggestion may seem like superfluous. But if your student is bored or not enrolled at the moment, courses online may offer some unique opportunities.

First, I'll mention Khan Academy. My younger son watched sessions here to supplement his live instruction while in college. The academy gave him a different yet valuable perspective for deeper understanding of specific subjects.

Next up is +Acumen hosted by Acumen, a non-profit that invests “patient capital” in businesses in developing countries. Earlier this year, I enrolled in a free class and found the content and the people there engaging. I took part in a few discussions with team members I met online as well as academy-sponsored events. It was amazing to meet new people and make connections with people worldwide. So even if your kids can't meet international students face to face, they could get together with them for online discussions.

On-Demand Learning from LinkedIn Premium offers access to loads of courses. I took one last year and was pleased with its quality.

These are just a few of the opportunities available to students. Many are available at no cost.

Pursue a Passion Project

Independent learning isn't just for college credit, though you may be able to get credit for prior learning.

My passion projects at home would be developing a tasty granola mix, creating homemade sports bars to replace purchased snacks, and perfecting a candle-making process, which I started to learn from my son when he was in college. I've also got digitizing and cataloging family photos on my list.

A few outside projects I might pursue are hiking or running all the trails in county and state parks within an hour's drive, tackling a marathon, biking rails-to-trails paths in my own and surrounding states. I may even organize outings to these places, especially since I know them so well, or will, after these trips.

A college student may have similar interests or different ambitions. I could imagine a head start on a research project, for example, one involving extensive reading, identification of primary sources, and a series of expert interviews. For those pursuing a career in the public or non-profit world, I envision a volunteer stint, possibly requiring in-person presence but also doing work remotely, serving the community while expanding a network and gaining new skills.

Thoughts on Missing a College Year

Having worked with people in the midst of job changes and career shifts, I'd become convinced the straightest path to a college degree was the smartest. If I were parenting college kids today, I doubt I'd be calm about this time away from campus. As the parent of young adults who are college grads, now I have a different perspective on the college years. Now I'm open to the possibility, okay the probability, I was wrong about the four-year journey to adulthood. I'm open to different paths.

When your child does start working or running a business, the projects completed, the skills developed and refined, the friends made, and the networks expanded away from campus could be useful. As for the OB business class, I aced my exams with insights gained from my summer job.

What are your college kids doing now? Are they back on campus, taking online classes at home, or doing something else?

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