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Dec. 21 2009 - 10:44 pm | 247 views | 2 recommendations | 16 comments

The conversation you and your 18-year-old need to have over the holidays

A decade into the 21st century, it is widely accepted that a four-year college degree is increasingly necessary to have a decent standard of living in the competitive global economy. (Note: I do understand that some people with four-year degrees can’t find work, while skilled tradespeople like electricians and plumbers are in high demand. In general, though, a bachelor’s degree is necessary and will only become more so.) I must admit, I generally have fallen into the “graduate from high school, go to college, work for a few years, then go to grad school” camp, as if it were an assembly line-type process.

However, an op-ed by Gwyeth T. Smith in last month’s Washington Post has me rethinking whether this is the best thing for the majority of students. He advocates for a “gap year” between high school and college, and often tells the high-achieving high school seniors whose parents have hired him as a personal college admissions consultant that he would

“rather see most of these young men and women far from a campus for a while. I urge them to bus tables in a restaurant, apprentice for an architect or pull weeds on a community farm. In their free time, I add, they should devour a stack of great books.”

His reasoning is part financial, and he makes reference to the economy, budgeting and student loans, and Pell Grant increases that still are a year away. But the argument I identified with the most was this one:

I’ve watched too many students get caught up in the admissions arms race and spend their high school years preening for colleges. They rocket through advanced-placement classes; they push their SAT or ACT scores to the 98th percentile. Yet they don’t slow down to reflect on who they are and who they want to become. Soon after plunging into their dream engineering or pre-med program, many realize that they aren’t cut out to be engineers, doctors and the like. Others have been hurtling from activity to activity since preschool and can’t deal with unstructured hours. They waste their first year of college watching Jon Stewart online when they should be reading John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty.’”

I was not an “overscheduled child,” but I did spend a good deal of high school stressing about my academic credentials so I could get in to my first choice college upon graduating. And although I don’t think I wasted any of my time during college, I wonder if I might have had an even better undergraduate experience by taking a year off to work, read some great books, and, to paraphrase Crash Davis (Kevin Costner’s character in the greatest baseball movie of all time, Bull Durham), “just be.”

So, if you’re a parent with a high school senior under your roof, I encourage you to take some time over the holidays to have an open discussion about post-high school options–no matter how certain you or your teenager are about what’s going to happen next fall. Normally these options are limited to community college vs. 4-year college or university, or in-state vs. out-of-state school, but I think “gap year” should be considered as well. Even if nothing comes of it, acknowledging it as an option may lead your child to spend some time on personal reflection and could result in some interesting and unexpected conversations.

If any readers actually have this conversation, I would love to hear what comes of it!


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  1. collapse expand

    Great idea. A gap year is much more common and accepted in places like England and Australia than in the U.S.

    A good, challenging school is no place to waste tens of thousands of dollars and four years of your life. It’s also extremely eye-opening to do some less-glamorous jobs and see how that feels. If nothing else, they may make clear(er) a sense of vocation — or a wish to make sure you’re not stuck at the bottom of the wage scale forever.

    I’m writing a book about working retail PT for the past two years. I think every single person should do it, during the holidays, for at least a month to understand 1) what hard work is 2) what low-paid work does to you financially, physically and mentally 3) to see with what contempt people treat you, assuming you cannot do any better.

    All of which may make college look pretty inviting.

    • collapse expand

      To your last point, Caitlin, during the summer after my freshman year of college, I worked 40-50 hours/week at a local movie theater. There I found out (1) what hard work is, (2) how drained I was physically and mentally each day after work, and (3) how many people treat retail employees (poorly). This third point was especially frustrating for me. I kept thinking, “These people have no idea how smart I am or what college I attend. They just see me with this uniform on and know that I make about $6 an hour.” That experience was by no means my sole motivation for doing well in school, but I certainly realized–perhaps it came to me that night when I spent two hours cleaning up torn garbage bags filled with soggy popcorn in the trash compactor room–that I needed to put myself in a position where I’d never have to take a job like that again.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Or another take- the 2 years of compulsory military service some countries have. My objection to the “work retail” thought is the finite number of jobs there, and the poorest will be pushed out in favor of the kids. But, yes, something- public service preferably.

  3. collapse expand

    What I think you neglected to point out is that the “consultant” who advocates a gap year does so to the rich parents that hire him.

    The gap year only looks favorable to admissions officers if you make it count. In other words, it involves more than “just being”, and finding out what your really want to do with your life.

    For the gap year to count favorably, it necessitates doing something amazing and impressive like helping kids in Africa or something equally inaccessible to most students. Most kids whose parents can’t afford a consultant are in no financial position to pay for year-long NGO trips so their can maybe get into a better college.

    And, “steveintransit”, surely you weren’t speaking of the US army to offer 2 year engagements in a time where reservists are being deployed and re-deployed indefinitely? Army service isn’t an inspiring and funny Goldie Hawn movie.

    Taking a year off to work in retail to supposedly save up for school and “just be” is a stupid idea to anyone who crunched the numbers. To cover a year of college, you’d have to work at least two minimum-wage type jobs, leaving you zero time to do any extra reading or soul-searching.

    Moreover, the only honest thing you can say about the experience is that it really sucks to have to work such a shitty job.

    Lastly, you might want to consider that students have worked shitty jobs during their high school summers. Maybe, just maybe, they’re studying hard to get into a good college because they’ve already had a taste of what it’s like to be resigned to a minimum wage job, the same kind of job that they’ll work at to put themselves through college.

    • collapse expand

      The compulsory military service (notably Israel and South Korea) is for countries with no other choice for one reason or another. And no, the Army is no more a “Goldie Hawn” movie- any more than the National Guard or any other branch. What I find from returning GIs in college is that they’re far more serious than most- one who failed out and joined the Marines was near the top of his class- after a tour in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

      The point being that retail is not a viable option as you’ve pointed out, but public service is. Nonprofits and many other community services permit a number of opportunities for professional services, professional networking, and actually serves a purpose. Understanding the realities of life for many people, and learning the skills to address them, can be highly beneficial for a lot of our teenagers who need to discover who they can become.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Actually, I can add that NGO/Charity work is not viable from experience either. At least not right now in this economy.

        I had this discussion with my daughter (a Junior now), for a variety of reasons I felt she really needed that year to mature. She had worked a low wage job already for years, and her first choice who had already accepted her allowed the year. So, we looked for NGO type work. Preferably abroad, but local was fine. The goal would be that it would be full time, not 3 hours here and there at the food bank or soup kitchen, which she already had access to through church.

        We searched. We couldn’t find a thing that didn’t want people who already had college degrees. Even in those programs without college degrees as a hard requirement we were told her application would compete with people just off a four year degree and otherwise unemployed or also “broadening their experiences”, and she would not likely be accepted. Who knew NGOs were more competitive than college? For any that did this, what NGOs gave your unskilled 18 year-olds full-time volunteer work? Starting a list would be helpful.

        My daughter went without the gap year after all. My son, who is 17 will not have a gap year. When I read the title I first thought of him. But employment of this nature for an unskilled, autism-spectrum, learning-disabled home-schooled child would be impossible if my AP class, best public high school daughter had problems competing. He is tech. college bound in the fall at 17, no gap year. He also does volunteering through two local churches and is looking for more. However, I’m not worried about the son, he has spent so much time discovering who he is and what he wants to overcome his disabilities. I only point his situation out since I felt there was a brief twinge that this article was an “elitists need only apply” variety, when I realized I had to shift to thinking of my daughter only and not my son when reading it.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I was all set to rant and froth this into a longer post about student loans and not buying the hype of “college as necessity” but I think that my feelings on this subject might have been summed up best by the great
    Frank Zappa:

    If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.

    • collapse expand

      chinacat – The problem with Zappa’s “get educated in the library” philosophy is that when it comes time to begin one’s career by applying for a full-time job, academic accomplishments matter. This is especially so early in one’s life, when people don’t have much work experience. A bachelor’s degree at the top of one’s resume provides an edge, and a degree from a top college or university increases that edge. Remember, China graduates as many honors students each year as we do students. As the job market gets more crowded, a college degree will become what a high school diploma is today: absolutely necessary, assuming one wants a decent standard of living.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Hmmm. This is all great food for thought, as someone with a son in high school who is very much on that college treadmill. That said, I’ve also read somewhere that kids who interrupt their schooling are less likely to finish their degree; whether that applies to kids who are already enrolled in college who take time off or gap year kids, I’m not sure. My son has always been a math/science kid but I’m encouraging him to eschew the MITs of the world for more broad-based schools where he can interact with other students with different interests. He can still study engineering, if that’s what interests him, but knowing he has a creative bent to him, too, he should have the opportunity to explore those areas.

    Separately, with greater specialization required of graduates in the business world, I think it’s almost a given that upward mobility will depend on a graduate degree–something that was not really a requirement in my day unless you were planning to be a doctor or lawyer. I’d much rather have him take that “gap year” after he got his bachelor’s degree, than after high school.

    • collapse expand

      inmyhumbleopinion – Your point that “kids who interrupt their schooling are less likely to finish their degree” is a good one. The gap year–at any point during formal schooling–is not for everyone. I recall a few years ago a family friend applying to law school, with the plan of attending in the fall after graduating with his bachelor’s degree. I suggested to this person’s father that taking a year or two off to work and get some “real world” experience might be advisable. The father’s response: “Once my son starts making money in a full-time job, he’s never going to go back to school.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I like the idea, with the caveat that the “gap year” should still have considerable focus. I’ve seen too many lose direction and find themselves floating in nothing, all the while saying, “next year I’ll go to school,” but never do. Ten years later they’re still waiting tables. That said, I think there’s something to chew on here.

  7. collapse expand

    I am 18 and pretty much taking that idea right now. I could have gone to a state college, but instead I am taking it easy at the county college along with having a job at the same time. If I go to a state college right now, I would be completely lost after completing school.

  8. collapse expand

    The way I see it, there are 2 conversations that need to take place (long before a kid turns 18). One conversation needs to happen with the school boards and high schools. As soon as students today walk into the doors of a high school, they are groomed to be ‘college ready’ by the time they are 18. My son is 16 and had a 4 year high school plan by the end of his freshman year .. complete with the college entrance exams he is to take, scholarships to apply for, and classes he will need to make sure his transcript is rock solid. He was 15 years old and being asked about his future interests! Today, if I didn’t work in his high school, I’d never see him. He can’t work a job outside of school hours because of the amount of work the advanced courses dictate (many connected to a major university that will award him an AA upon high school graduation), and he is an athlete. Every single high school student has a 4 year plan .. even the students receiving support from Special Education services. Some plans are created for the college bound, some are for trade schools. About 25% of the high-schoolers at my school are working 1/2 their days at community colleges and vocational tech institutes already.

    I’ve spoken to college admission officers (it’s part of what I do in my job) and they stress that high schools are pushing kids too hard and too fast, and yes, when they do get onto a huge campus to begin a 4 year degree where no one is managing their day to the minute, they struggle to make it all work .. and the freedom associated with socialization is overwhelming.

    The second conversation needs to happen between parents and kids for 18 years. What kind of life do you see your kid embracing? What are the values of your family that you hope he carries forth? And most importantly, what are his talents? (Most parents know what their kids are good at from early on.)

    • collapse expand

      You are so right, Tricia. But the genie is out of the bottle and unless the selective schools collectively change their criteria for admission, the rat race will continue. My big wake up call happened earlier this year when the captain of my son’s robotics team–a poster child for the Ivy League if there ever was one; near perfect SAT’s, 3 varsity sports, well over a 4.0 GPA (weighted), marching band, Eagle Scout (I know, crazy, right? Nice kid, too!For him, easy as falling off a log.)–did NOT get into his top two schools. The lesson learned for me was that with so many kids pushing the academic and extra-curricular envelope, the admissions process is as much a lottery as anything, because merit alone doesn’t get you in. There are still more qualified applicants than there are places. So, my advice to my kid is to do the best he can without causing himself a nervous breakdown, and he will no doubt do well regardless of where he attends.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    I’m really sorry I didn’t talk to my daughter seriously about a gap year. She’s a freshman in college and working very hard, after working very hard during the last two years of high school (first two, not really). It would need to be planned out, not a time to sleep a lot. But I do hate to see her work herself so hard, only to work even harder, without a break. And I suspect that during that gap year, you either 1) discover something completely different you never thought you’d want to pursue or 2) discover you really want to continue whatever it is you thought you wanted to study when you were in high school.

    Also, it would have given us a year to revive our college savings account.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.