IN THE COMING weeks, a nation of on-edge high school seniors will be hearing back from colleges: thumbs up or thumbs down, thick envelope or thin. For most, this will be followed by the big decision of where to go. Much advice will be forthcoming, from parents, guidance counselors, siblings, friends, teachers, and extended family.
But I’d like to offer my own suggestion: Don’t go to any college next year.
I don’t mean skip college entirely. The job prospects for people without a bachelor’s degree are decidedly poor and getting worse. No, I mean jump off the education treadmill you’ve been on since kindergarten and do something else - for a year.
There is mounting evidence that people who take a year off between high school and college (a “gap year’’ or “bridge year,’’ it’s called) get more out of college and get better grades. There are increasing numbers of options, including programs that provide financial support as you do good deeds in American cities or around the world. Spend a year doing something worthwhile, and you will arrive on campus with a bit more maturity, a sense of perspective on the world - refreshed and ready to learn.
The bridge year, a popular option overseas and among children of the 1 percent, should become a widely available, actively encouraged option in America. It would be better for students, and in the long term, for the nation.
Today the move from high school to college has the feel of stumbling over a finish line; the racers are exhausted, disoriented, and not particularly interested in gearing up for another run. A recent poll of incoming freshmen found that their emotional health had fallen to the lowest level - stressed and depressed - since the survey began more than two decades ago.
Robert Clagett, the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College and a proponent of the bridge year, decided to study the power of time off when he noticed an unusual phenomenon. Decades ago, Middlebury began accepting a handful of students to start in the second semester, to fill the spots left by kids doing spring semesters abroad. The “Febs,’’ as they’re known, had earned the reputation of being better students, and it seemed like they were more active on campus.
Clagett collected hard data on students who took time off before college. He found an unmistakable boost: On average, the time-away students earn a higher grade point average, even accounting for their academic credentials before college. Another 2010 study, by an Australian researcher, showed bridge-year students are more academically motivated.
Historically, the bridge year was something only the wealthy could afford, but a year off does not need to be an unbearable financial burden. Global Citizen Year, for example, offers amazing world-learning experiences in places like Brazil and Senegal to participants and also offers financial aid. (Roughly a third of the students get a free ride.) The rapidly growing program, founded in 2009 by a Harvard Business School grad, is inspired in part by the venerable City Year, which offers stipends for college. The Middlebury College website has a helpful list of programs and other resources.
Harvard freshman Gus Ruchman did Global Citizen Year after high school, and found himself living with a host family and doing deeply fulfilling public health work a few hours east of Dakar, Senegal. He was on his own, navigating an Islamic culture, learning that not everyone on the planet shares the American obsession with being right on time – all experiences that changed him for the better and helped prepare him for the overwhelming experience of starting college.
“I absolutely loved it,’’ says Ruchman.
Harvard, like Middlebury, has long been a proponent of gap-year experiences, but a number of other colleges are coming to recognize their value. Both Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have recently begun fellowship programs to incoming freshmen who want to take a gap year. Other institutions should join the ranks of the enlightened.
One of the most important obstacles, oddly, is the tunnel vision of many parents. They fear their children will lose their way, that their desire to learn will falter. But everyone who has worked with kids who’ve taken a gap year says this is exactly wrong. Leaving the classroom for a taste of the real world is the best way to teach the value of education. A year brings maturity. You look in their eyes and see a passion, a more fully formed ambition. It’s the ones who haven’t taken a step back, some time to figure out what they really want out of college, you should worry about.