The Value of a “Gap Year” (or just not attending traditional four-year college)

The recent discussion over whether it is a good idea for President Obama's daughter to forego college for a year and take what is commonly termed a "gap year" reflects a troubling trend in education. The President and his daughter may actually be onto something that many Americans ignore when their child approaches high school graduation.

I address this phenomenon in my book Issues, Strategies, and Concerns in Education Today, now in its second edition. In an essay titled "Where Will Your Child Be Their Sophomore Year in College," several issues are addressed. Among these are college retention, college drop-out rates, college completion, and community college as an option, among other issues.

Brian Harke, an associate dean at the University of Southern California, has pointed to a statistic that is alarming and that has remained consistent during recent years. He refers to the 34% drop-out rate among college freshman as "the freshman myth." Harke contends that many of these students leave college during or after their freshman year because they are simply not prepared and may have unrealistic expectations about college. Worse, Harke points out, 70 percent of these students drop out because they do not adapt well to their new social (let alone academic) environment.

I also point out in my book that Roger Yoshino has uncovered the sixteen most common reasons that college freshman drop out. Among these are:

  • lack of preparation in high school (51%)
  • inadequate finances (39%)
  • no clear-cut field of interest (33%)
  • poor study habits (29%)
  • unhappy personal adjustment (16%)
  • lack of academic ability (13%)
  • misconception of what to expect in college (11%)

What is perhaps most interesting and alarming is that Yoshino conducted his research in 1958 (yes, 1958!), clearly illustrating that things have not changed much in nearly sixty years! Perhaps it is time to confront this issue head-on and stop kidding ourselves by believing that every eighteen-year-old must go to college right out of high school, or that every eighteen-year-old must go to college at all. This begs several questions: Are alternatives available that many do not consider or may not want to consider due to the societal pressure to send their eighteen-year-old off to college?  These options may include community college, work experience, military service, or a trade apprenticeship. Maybe more important, do those options make financial and career sense?

So many reasons can be attributed to this type of thinking – adult pressure, peer pressure, "zip code envy" where parents and students feel compelled to choose college simply because eveyone else is doing it; and counselor-teacher advice (guidance counselors are often evaluated on the basis of how many students they send off to college). The result is that many students often head off to college for all the wrong reasons. Geographic location, climate (both meteroological and social), urban/rural setting, school size, racial/ethnic diversity on campus, and a myriad of other reasons related to what I term "psychological comfort" play a major role in student retention. Failure to recognize the importance of these factors is, of course, a recipe for potential disaster. Ensuring a level of psychological comfort is critical to student success.

So, what are the potential consequences of sending your child a thousand or more miles away when they are not emotionally or academically prepared? The prospect of a student returning home with deflated self-esteem, who must face peers and explain his or her failure is something no parent wants their child to experience. From a parental perspective, spending $20,000 to $50,000 for a year of college expenses, only to discover that your son or daughter passed only a small percentage of their courses, can be a major blow to your financial security as well as a painful family dilemma.

Life is not linear. As adults, we know that life has a way of taking unexpected turns. Why is it then that, when it comes to our children, we believe that all of life's decisions must be made at the age of eighteen, and that not attending a four-year university directly out of high school will result in a life of professional failure? Quite the contrary, not all of life's decisions need to be made at the ripe old age of eighteen. In fact, research shows that students who do not enter college directly out of high school have a more successful college experience if they use their time in meaningful, productive activities such as travel, meaningful employment, or community service. These students are also less likely to engage in risky behaviors in college such as alcohol abuse, their college experience will be more rewarding, and they will graduate at the same rate as those who don't delay at all.

Washington Post writer, Jeff Selingo, in a recent article titled "The Solution to Millennial College Dropouts: More High School Seniors Should Follow Malia Obama and Take a Gap Year," reports that only four in ten students who start at a four-year college earn a degree after six years. Stephanie Banchero, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 reported that "nationwide, 44 percent of high school freshmen go on to attend college, and 21 percent earn a bachelor's degree in six years."  These are not encouraging statistics.

This has reached such a serious level, that many universities such as the University of Miami in Florida offer a degree in "enrollment management" to stem the increasing rate of drop-outs and flunk-outs from colleges and four-year universities.

So, is taking a "gap year" a good idea, and do Barack and Michelle Obama know something that many parents do not know or will not admit? Admittedly, it is probably easier for wealthy families to consider a gap year as an option. They can, of course, afford the cost of overseas travel to allow their children the luxury of "finding themselves." That certainly does seem like an unfair advantage afforded the wealthy and powerful. Parents of lesser means may understandably worry that allowing their child to take a gap year may result in that child not attending college at all. That is certainly a danger associated with this path. It is, however, a path worth considering, particularly if the child is just not ready for the four-year college experience. The financial and emotional implications of becoming part of "the freshman myth" are too important to ignore this issue.

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