Julia’s TEDx Talk

I have spent my entire professional career telling young people not to go to college.

Ok, let me clarify. I have spent my entire professional career telling young people not to go to college right away.

Why?

Because we are facing a crisis in higher education and we need to get creative.

What’s the end goal of higher education anyway? To produce a population of enlightened and employable citizens who have the tools to thrive in our society. The professionals operating within the higher education system are all individually striving to meet this goal, but due to factors out of any one person’s control, the system itself has become unsustainable. Educators, parents and society all believe – or did believe – that simply getting into college was the key to a successful life and career. But unfortunately the evidence just doesn’t support that argument.

The idea that a college degree takes exactly four years is so entrenched that we have a name for each of those four years – freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior – but only 36% of college students in the United States actually get a degree in that time frame and only 60% of students who start at a four year college or university will graduate with a degree at all in 6 years. 30% of student drop out after their freshman year.

Photo credit: Jesse Schloff photography

Over the past generation, college has ballooned into a huge investment. Thirty years ago, it was affordable; a college student could pay their way through university with a part time, minimum wage job. Now, it can be crippling; the average debt load for a college grad is $37,000 – and the 1.5 trillion dollars in collective student loan debt is delaying young people from buying a home, having children and saving for retirement. These delays have real financial consequences with ripple effects throughout the economy.

So what do students need to succeed in the current system? Ideally, they need to know more about themselves, their curiosities and their skills. They need to be mature enough to understand the value and expense of their education. It would be great if they had a better idea of their career path, since that would determine which type of post-secondary option is best suited for them.

I believe there is a simple and effective intervention that students, families, educators and even colleges themselves can employ right now to help students get a better return on their college investment. It’s a little phrase with a million possibilities: a gap year.

Let’s start with a simple definition for the uninitiated: A gap year is a deliberate period of time taken in order to explore one’s personal, practical and professional development. While a gap year cannot be boiled down to one singular activity, a combination of mentorship, experiential learning and personal exploration are key components to meaningful gap time. It can take place in the US or across the world, but at least part of it should be spent away from home, so a student can truly fledge.

Photo credit: Jesse Schloff photography

If you know someone who took a gap year, you probably think whatever they did is the norm. But there are no set parameters – the goal is to experiment, discover and learn outside the traditional classroom setting. This can take the form of hiking the Appalachian Trail, volunteering with a women’s microfinance cooperative in Mexico, interning in Berlin or working on a horse ranch in the Australian outback. But don’t let those example pigeon hole the definition.

In a world that prizes customization, a gap year is like a brand new set of shiny legos, offering a student an infinite number of activities, projects, programs and opportunities to build their own completely unique educational experience.  

Consider that we are in a moment when college is more competitive than ever before – many high school students are groomed from a young age to be attractive to colleges, racing from club to activity to sport, taking more AP classes than I ever knew existed! All while worrying about how their life will translate to a college application. We’ve seen spikes in diagnosed anxiety disorders and depression, sometimes related to the crushing pressure teenagers are put under to perform inside and outside the classroom. Students who aren’t classroom learners often feel undervalued even though they are talented in other ways. Many of these kids are burnt out; and yet we are expecting them to advance to an even more demanding level of education right away.

In the process of cultivating a generation of students who look good on their college application, we’ve forgotten to raise adults. We need to shift the focus to raising good citizens rather than good applicants; people who are curious, independent and eager to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Students who are empowered with their own sense of genuinely cultivated purpose will be the happiest and most successful in the long run.

A gap year asks the student to take control over their educational journey – to choose rather than hope to be chosen – and through the opportunity to explore without tests or an end goal in mind return to their studies with renewed vigor. In fact, I was in Cuba last month visiting with gap year students on a service-learning program and the group was emphatic about their excitement about college. One young woman told me, “I’m 1000% more ready to start college thanks to my gap year.”

And studies support this sentiment: 90% of students who take gap time with intentions to begin college do so within a year. And once they do, they perform better academically and graduate sooner than traditional students. Students who take a gap year have also been found to be more self-confident, more civically engaged, have more clarity in their career path, and consider themselves much more employable.

People don’t always realize that gap years are financially accessible, with many students self-funding their time or creating an itinerary that fits their particular budget. Colleges are seeing such positive outcomes from gap year students that increasingly, they are creating grants specifically for accepted students who defer admission to take gap time. Florida State University, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke all offer such grants. These institutions recognize that a gap year doesn’t leave you behind, it launches you forward.

For this reason, gap time is also a wonderful way to prepare for trade school, the military or a career. We do, after all, have to be reminded that the four-year college experience is not for everyone, and even then is but one piece in the colorful mosaic of a person’s life. One of the reasons I deeply believe in the power of gap time is not just its ability to develop the skills needed for college, but the core values one uses to live their life.

I recently spoke with a gap year alum named Tiger Mar who served 11 months with City Year Boston, an Americorps program that imbeds mentors into inner city schools, with an emphasis on raising graduation rates. This young man was placed in a school just thirty minutes from where he grew up, but found it to be a world away from his home and educational environment. He said cultivating empathy around different lived experiences so geographically close to his hometown was completely transformative for him.

Over the past ten years, I’ve come across thousands of people who have taken gap time, and nearly everyone has said it was the best decision of their life. And – while I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop on this one – I have never once heard someone say they regretted taking an intentional gap year.

This is notable because gap year students purposely challenge themselves –– a gap year is not supposed to be easy. They get lost in foreign cities and have to learn how to talk to strangers. They budget their money and make difficult choices. These are obstacles related to experiencing the real world. Overcoming discomfort and seeing yourself through to the other side develops resilience, an important quality for lifetime wellbeing.

We know the “cradle to career” system in place is not working for us, and I believe, the gap year option, if widely adopted, could signal a great sea change in how American youth enter adulthood.

Imagine a country where the cultural expectation shifted from the assumption of college right away to the assumption of meaningful personal cultivation. We’d see national service soar, skills training programs emerge, and wiser, more engaged college students. We’d see our future leaders expanding their horizons into cultures other than their own. We’d see youth-led innovation and invention. This is valuable. Both to the individual and to society.

Let’s re-envision how we educate our young adults and allow the world in to be one of the teachers. That will take a leap of faith. And in my estimation, that leap is in fact, into a gap.

Photo credit: Jesse Schloff photography

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