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!