Taking a Year Out

by Howard and Matthew Greene

More high school students who plan to attend college should consider the many positive reasons for spending a year out of school before enrolling. Here are some key reasons why. One of the most revealing trends today is the fact that colleges and universities report the graduation rate of their students over a six-year period. The notion of a high school student entering college and progressing through his or her studies in four years holds true for less than fifty percent of undergraduates. Families are all too often dismayed by the failure of their children to complete their degree program on schedule. Given the soaring tuition and living costs attached to a college education, the importance of a college diploma in securing a future career, and the debt families acquire in the process, this consternation is understandable.

Given the high stakes involved, what causes so many students to drop out or fail out of college? As in all matters that concern the behavior of young people, there is no single answer. There are, however, some common factors that suggest a strong possibility of an unsuccessful college experience. For some students, there is little understanding of the true purpose of a college education; their primary motivation is to make the break from home and to have the social fun (also known as partying) that they have not had in high school. For others, they do not have the academic foundation and organizational skills to cope with the demands the faculty will place upon them. In today's environment of inflated grades and little training in critical reading and writing skills in many high schools, these students simply are not prepared to deal with the amount of work and the kinds of thinking expected of them. Still another group of students is emotionally unprepared to make the daunting transition from the security and support of their family and friends to a new and unfamiliar environment. Many young students are overwhelmed by the exposure to the diverse people, ideas, and attitudes that confront them the moment they arrive on campus. Many of those who are so eager to move away from home and strike out on their own are stunned by the degree of their homesickness they experience.

For a large percentage of students, college costs create stress that interferes with concentration on their studies. Too many students find that their financial aid packages or savings do not cover the actual costs they incur. This can extend from buying required books each term to buying food when their schedule does not allow them to eat on the school's meal plan, to purchasing clothes and to traveling home. They are unnerved by the debt they are committing to or the job they have to take to help pay for these added expenses. Their time for studying and participating in campus life is greatly diminished, leaving them with little reason to remain in school.

A student who is likely to face any combination of these factors could be well served by working for a year to put away money or exploring internships, travel and study abroad, and volunteer positions in order to determine their special interests and goals for college or to gain emotional and social maturity that will enable them to deal with the separation from their home and the introduction to a totally new intellectual and cultural environment. This is not a new idea, as a great many students in European and British Commonwealth countries take a "gap year" before entering university. We have witnessed the successful experiences of many young men and women who have used their interim year in a productive way and proceeded to an outstanding college career. Sometimes, they have applied to college, been accepted, put down a deposit somewhere, and then requested a semester or a year's "deferral" of their matriculation. In other instances, they have decided to complete their senior year of high school, plan their year off, and then applied to colleges during that time period. More American families need to consider the year off as a proven and rewarding option for many students. They should worry less about whether their children will want to pursue higher education in the future, and more about whether they are prepared to begin this next critical phase of their lives right after high school.