Dear Carolyn: My wife and I saved for our two boys' college educations while they were young, and we were fortunate enough to be able to provide for a four-year, state college education with little or no debt. Our oldest likes school and will soon graduate. Our youngest does not like school and quit after one semester.

I understand people change as they mature but I would be very surprised if Unit 2 would ever pursue a traditional four-year degree. Perhaps trade school, but my sense is he is put off by the mere thought of any type of classroom setting.

Our younger son is largely self-sufficient, with some help from us, but given his current path he is looking at a lifelong paycheck-to-paycheck struggle.

The college fund is still available, but there is a reasonable possibility it will go unused. I think it could be used for other goals, such as a down payment on a house, but my wife's position is that it was set aside for education and will only be used for education.

That seems a bit unfair to our son, when the funds could be used for life advancements other than education. What argument could I use to counter my wife's position? Or am I wrong about this?

Carolyn says: The argument for making other use of the money is simple, and (to me) persuasive: The whole point of saving for your sons' college educations was to give them an advantage in life, right? So, using the money to give your younger son his advantage in a form that better suits him — and therefore he is actually able to use — even if it's not as big or as socially sanctioned as the one you envisioned, would make perfect sense.

Allowing him to invest (wisely) in real estate, or setting up a trust, or paying for trade school and gifting him the rest, or letting him know the money is available to finance his long-term strategy once he's settled on one, all have the potential to shore up his financial foundation.

"Potential" being the operative word, since there are no certainties even with four-year degrees.

But that argument will be ineffective if your wife's resistance is more emotional than rational — if she's not ready to accept a son who doesn't meet her upper-middle-class definition of success.

I'm guessing, of course. But it fits. And to extend this reasoning: You aren't mired in old expectations, to your credit, and so can see your son's strengths for what they are, not what you wish they would be. That would explain why you're now able to see advantages in a Plan B.

Accordingly, you might want to start the conversation with your wife on the emotional point: We need to love and support the son we have.

The income advantage of a degree is well-documented on the macro level; that can be measured. Is it even possible, though, to measure the effect on a micro scale of being pressured to live someone else's idea of a worthy life? That's the risk you run in making it known you plan to withhold your son's launch money till he jumps through just the right hoop.

Urge your wife, please, not to devalue your son like that.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at