A Gap Year for Every Student

The first time I mentioned this idea to someone, casually, they replied, “Well, that certainly would be controversial.” I don’t understand why it would be. What am I missing?

The idea is simple and not particularly original or profound. Plenty of students do it already, but they’re certainly the exception. The mechanism doesn’t really matter but let’s say that in the spring of a student’s senior year of high school, after being accepted to university, they inform their next school that they’ve elected to defer for a year. Instead of dialing it in, students (other than those in APs perhaps?) continue certain studies but also go looking for a job. Upon graduation they could still do during the summer whatever they would have done if they were heading straight to college, presumably live at home and keep expenses low. But then, come September, they start their job. It could be paid or unpaid, an internship or something that would introduce them to federal and state taxes and withholding for Social Security if they hadn’t met them already. Some students would find a way to work in an industry that they imagined to be their future industry of choice—medicine, law, investment banking, teaching, engineering. Others would work in a library (also, perhaps, a future vocation).

The point is that after 18 years of being surrounded by adults who, as one former colleague put it, are “paid to love them” (an incendiary comment, I admit, but also kinda true as you can test any time one of those adults writes a comment that suggests otherwise), a student is confronted with a new form of being altogether, one who will shape much of the rest of her life: a boss. Just as there were classes at 8am Monday morning, now there is a Monday morning staff meeting. Except you can’t roll in at 7:59 with bedhead and munching on a bagel. You’ve got to arrive fifteen minutes early so you can get your act together before the meeting. You might be called on to provide an update on a project and not having an answer ready isn’t an option. It’s not about class participation. It’s about doing your job. Not being prepared could mean losing responsibility or watching a colleague ascend past you or it could mean losing your job. Perhaps you get lucky and get a nice boss or manager who enjoys helping young people mature and grow. Or perhaps you get a jerk. You certainly don’t get a ten day vacation at Thanksgiving and eighteen days around Christmas. If you work in a grocery store, New Year’s Day might be a work day.

Some, the lucky or particularly intrepid ones, will not work but will travel. That would be great too. You wouldn’t benefit from having a boss but what you lost there perhaps you’d gain by exposure to other cultures and certainly from having a slightly thinner margin of error for a while, from learning that the world really doesn’t revolve around you. It took me a while to figure that out.

You learn a lot during that year. There’s no curriculum but you learn to equip yourself—you learn how to learn—in entirely new ways. You realize you’re capable of things you never knew you were capable of because you’d never needed to know. Perhaps you start reading for fun during your lunch break. You get home at 5 or 7 or 9. Do you help cook? Or maybe you’re living with an aunt and uncle in some other part of the country or the world? No homework. Perhaps you get tired of consuming endless seasons of television via Netflix because it’s not so novel when it’s not an alternative to preparing for class. You interact with adults even more than in boarding school and in a different way—as peers. You’re called to a higher standard and you realize you like it. You’re more mature than you thought. And you realize how much about life you actually still have to learn.

Perhaps you start to pine for the classroom. At least you start to daydream about college in a different way. Regardless, you arrive on campus, a student again, and you realize that “15 credit hours” means that you’re only expected—and often not required—to be somewhere for 15 hours. The rest of the week is yours to use as you want, for better or worse. 15 hours? Last year, when you were a waiter, that was a double shift—one day. And the rest of the week is yours? All of a sudden, rather than faced with wave after wave of college bound students determined to waste much of the first year or two of their higher education experience, we could be faced with wave after wave of really grateful students who could actually appreciate what an amazing luxury a four year college experience really is. Students determined to make the most of their time there and, perhaps, students who realize that if they wanted to save a lot of money they could probably accomplish in three years or, at least, three and a half, most of what college can offer if only they used their time well. Students excited to seek out those adults who are paid to love them or, at least, paid to tolerate and entertain them (for 15 hours a week), for further conversation about a topic covered briefly in a lecture. And perhaps students whose parents required them to chip in some of their earnings from the previous year of work to help pay for college only to see how quickly a year’s worth of savings can disappear when tuition is $60,000.

This is certainly what I would like for my own children. (I haven’t asked my wife yet, but I think she’d be on board.) I know it would be problematic for colleges for one year if everyone decided to do this at once but after that life would get even more predictable than the early decision process has already made it. Elite, college-level athletes may be forced by short-sighted college coaches to begin immediately, but what college coach wouldn’t want a student to be a year older, wiser, and more physically mature, assuming that the student would adhere to some sort of training regime? Students would graduate having already cut their teeth in the working world in some way or another, that much more prepared for the realities of life after college.

This thought started with my first experience as an employer, two years after college, and that 8am Monday morning staff meeting. Our newest hire struggled for weeks to understand that arriving late or unprepared wasn’t an option and that we weren’t being jerks to point that out. I was amazed at the umbrage she took at being held accountable. At the entitlement. Now, as a Head, I would like every Gunnery graduate to impress their future professors and bosses with their maturity. I would like every Gunnery graduate to soak up the amazing opportunity of college for being just that. Most will even if this dream dies with this post, and that makes me proud. But Penny, William, and Marilee (my kids, 9, 6, and 3)—start getting your resumes ready; senior spring is around the corner and at least part of your college tuition is on you.

One thought on “A Gap Year for Every Student

  1. Great post. Gap year is mostly a European phenomenon coming out of a socialistic mindset. I think here in the US, “socialism” is still controversial. But we could all learn a little from our international peers, and I’m sure as a boarding school you get a lot more of the international perspective than most high schools. But I guess it depends how the student structures his or her gap year to not lose sight of big picture goals.

    Anyway, I just found your blog and it’s very refreshing to hear some of the personal opinions and thoughts of a Head of School. Thanks for sharing, and I will keep following!

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