There’s no question that the United States is currently facing a tipping point with regards to its education system. Student debt is becoming a campaign platform staple, with Hillary Clinton just rolling out her $350 billion plan to reduce the interest rates on new and existing student loans, federally fund public universities, and attempt to cut tuition costs (1). Jeb Bush was grilled in the recent Republican presidential debate by the other nine candidates on stage and the three moderators for his support of the Common Core program implemented in some states, including Florida during his term as the state’s governor, to mixed reaction in both parties, (2). Internationally, the United States education system is widely regarded as mediocre at best in proficiency rankings for math, reading, and writing (3). Is it possible that the best thing for American students is not only improved educational standards but a break from school altogether?
Gap years, a widespread practice throughout Europe allow students to take time off from their formal education before matriculating into a university. Students can engage in service, travel, or experience the workforce before their first year of higher education. Many combine these options to travel with service organizations or intern in the fields they are considering getting their degree in. This year of self-discovery and experience, however, is mostly isolated to European countries. Fewer than two percent of American students who get accepted to university decide to take any time off before attending (8).
The fact that many students at the age of 18 are expected to decide their path of study, and therefore their career, without significant experience outside of the education system is remarkable. While many students wait until their second or third year to formally declare a major at many American universities, it doesn’t change the fact that they have been incubated by formal schooling non-stop since the age of five. In a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, college graduates in the United States who find a career in their field of study are in the minority - only 27 percent of graduates have a job related to their major (4). Furthermore, according to the New York Times, “41 percent of graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require a college degree” (5). This percentage is not intended to drive young Americans away from a college education; however it is a reality not sufficiently explained to many students before they are shoved headlong into another four years of education and tuition bills. About one-third of college freshmen don't return to the same institution for a second year, according to ACT Inc., an education testing company in Iowa City (6). For most students, gap year experiences have an impact on their choice of academic major and career – either setting them on a different path than before a Gap Year or confirming their direction. 60% said the experience either "set me on my current career path/academic major" or "confirmed my choice of career/academic major" (7). Many students simply are not ready to make the decisions they have to when transitioning immediately from high school to university.
In a story for NPR’s All Things Considered in 2014, reporter Kirk Carapezza broke down the program at Tufts University encouraging a gap year for their incoming students (8). Beginning in the 2014 academic year, Tufts will “give incoming freshmen the opportunity to do a year of international or national service prior to beginning their studies.” Tufts is treating this year as a supervised independent study of what it means to serve others. Financial aid is made available and the students will be in contact with faculty throughout the year away from the university. Along with Tufts, there are some other elite schools in America, such as UNC Chapel Hill and Princeton, that are entertaining a supervised gap year as something beneficial for their students. The chair of the College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, Alan Solomont, specified in his interview that the university will attempt to overcome the largest hurdle standing between students and a gap year: “We are going to make it available to students of all economic backgrounds.” In this comment, Solomont cut to the core of what is stopping many students from taking time away from school before their college education. The financial consequences of taking a gap year go beyond the price of a passport, plane tickets, and twelve months’ living expenses. By delaying entry into university, the student also delays their future entry into the workforce. According to the NPR report, “research shows creating any kind of gap in formal education is most harmful to low-income, non traditional students.” College is becoming a larger investment every year and yet is widely regarded as the only option for high performing students graduating from high school.
This financial weight and the undeniable pressure it produces has overcome, at least in perception, the proven benefits of taking a gap year. A study of more than 900 first-year students by Sydney University researchers has revealed that not only did taking a year off have a positive effect on students' motivation, it also translated to a real boost in performance in their first semesters at university (9). Burnout from the competitive pressure of high school and a desire "to find out more about themselves," are the top two reasons students take gap years, according to a survey of 280 people who did so by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson of Advance, N.C., co-authors of a guidebook on the topic, The Gap-Year Advantage (7). Indeed, taking a 1-year break between high school and university allows 'motivation for and interest in study to be renewed' (10). And yet, there are three primary hurdles that remain standing in the way of American students and their potential gap year experiences: financial pressures, concern about future college admissions, and the societal taboo associated with “taking time off.” Programs such as the one at Tufts work to negate two of these three dilemmas. By offering financial aid and creating a program within the university to oversee the year of service, Tufts has lightened the financial load while simultaneously dispelling negative perceptions of delaying entrance to college. However, the problem with this system is that the student must first gain admission to a selective university such as Tufts in order to be afforded the option of a manageable gap year. This undermines one of the most important aspects of the gap year, personal growth, which should ultimately help a student at the end of their gap year earn admittance to a more prestigious university than they would have been able to straight out of high school. In addition, the gap year also serves to help focus the interests of the student and aids in their eventual selection of a program of study. If the gap year taken is technically during the student’s time at a specific university, those potentially course-altering realizations would be difficult to act upon.
One solution is a federally subsidized program of service for students directly out of high school. This year, I suggest, should come with some guidelines. For example, in order to receive federal funding for your year of service, you must agree to afterwards go on to some higher form of education. Whether that is a degree granting program at a university or a vocational school does not matter, as long as the gap year is not where your formal education ends. The system could be modeled after the ROTC program in place today, which pays full tuition and fees for students who pledge four years of service to the US Military after graduation. It’s in our country’s interest to not only invest in the existing systems of education but to also look beyond them. Clearly, the status quo is no longer acceptable or sustainable. A gap year has notable positive effects of the education, development, and character of young adults. Perhaps it’s time to adopt the European tradition and “mind the gap.”
Karl Haigler & Rae Nelson, The Gap Year Advantage, independent study of 300 Gap Year students between 1997 - 2006
Birch, "The Characteristics of Gap-Year Students and Their Tertiary Academic Outcomes", Australia, 2007