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The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During Collegeby Karl Haigler
The Gap-Year Advantage
Introduction: Intrepid Pathways
"I'M NOT SURE I want to go to college next year."
This was the first indication we had that our eighteen-year-old son, Adam, although accepted by selective colleges, was considering stepping off the traditional road of education to journey down a path less traveled.
"But I do have an idea of what I want to do!" he continued. Adam was inspired by a graduate of a school in his district who had taken time off before college to participate in a community service program called City Year. The young man, Matt Hendren, had returned to his alma mater and dropped by Adam's government and politics class to talk about his experiences.
"I was about to enroll in an excellent but very large university," Matt Hendren reported. "I didn't have the focus or exposure to seek out what I wanted to do. If you have any doubt that you will succeed, take time off to ensure you will succeed. Forme, City Year was the perfect mix of teaching, learning, exposure to the real world, and responsibility. Taking time off and serving through City Year was the best decision of my life." Matt's description of teaching fourth-graders in a rooftop garden in Boston, Massachusetts, sparked an interest in Adam that was more relevant and focused than his vision of spending at least four more years sitting in classrooms.
While Adam spoke convincingly about how taking time off might be the right option for him, we recalled a time not too long ago when some in our generation had acted on President Kennedy's assertion that "one person can make a difference and every person should try" through the Peace Corps or Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA). And many more of us--at least those not called by military service--had heard the words but continued unquestioningly and dutifully down the road prescribed by our schools, our parents, and our society. We also recalled conversations with a few peers who chose to set forth in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s on gap-year opportunities before or during college. They--like Adam's City Year schoolmate--considered the experience powerful, pivotal, and life changing.
As Adam wondered about the options that might be open to him if he took time off, Karl recalled how, more than twenty years earlier, as a principal of Heathwood Hall in South Carolina, several of his students had questioned whether they were ready for college ... yet. At that time, he had a fortuitous encounter with Cornelius "Neil" Bull, an educator and visionary, who made the case that there were alternatives to going straight to college for students who were prepared to choose them.
Inspired by Adam's interest, we made a quick search of the Internet. We found that Neil Bull's vision had grown into theCenter for Interim Programs, LLC, located in Princeton, New Jersey, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Interim is a locus for helping thousands of students design and implement customized gap-year strategies. Soon Adam was on a conference call with Holly Bull, Neil's daughter and the Center's interim president. She described the myriad opportunities open to him if he was interested in pursuing intrepid pathways.
As we grew accustomed to the prospect of Adam's stepping off the beaten track to college, we were reassured by the examples of other families who had been the beneficiaries of the Interim experience. Holly (like her father before her) ensured our involvement every step along the way, delving into our view of Adam's options--and particularly reinforcing his college goals as an integral part of an overall plan. By the time of our initial phone interview with Holly, we believed Adam was prepared, along with us, to consider the prospects of taking time off as part of his educational and (perhaps) life goals.
"Would you like to work with a group in Central America? Explore where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand? Volunteer as a forest ranger in the Redwoods? Teach environmental studies in Appalachia? Intern with the British parliament?" Adam's eyes grew wide as Holly was able to connect with exactly what Adam was hoping for: These were his options! He did have choices!
What emerged from these conference calls--and the conversations we had with Adam around them--was a plan for an "extra-curriculum" sequence of events that, combined, would last a year or more. Adam's gap experiences would begin with a weeklong outdoor education program in New Jersey at Tom Brown, Jr.'s Tracker School and then would take him overseas to teach in Costa Rica and to work on an environmental preserve in New Zealand, finally leading him to a job in Texas as aninstructor in environmental education. Holly's sense of Adam's goals provided a rationale for each program he considered and its respective place in the overall plan.
The first stage in Adam's international journey was ten weeks living with a host family in a small mountain village in Costa Rica and teaching English with another volunteer in the local elementary school through a program called Global Routes. The growth, maturity, and perspective that he gained were evident to us in numerous ways, but can be illustrated through e-mails written at that time. He discovered through working with kids who were incredibly excited about learning that teaching was his calling. His fluency in Spanish grew exponentially as he became immersed in the life of the village.
He also gained a perspective on the value of resources. "In my school there is absolutely nothing," he wrote in one e-mail. He proposed to develop a fund for textbooks and scholarships. "Tons of the kids here want to go to school but can't go past sixth grade because of the lack of funds," he relayed. "Their hunger for learning and teaching in Costa Rica is awesome and has totally changed my view on education." During his time in Central America, he managed to raise more than two thousand dollars for books and scholarships, mostly through contacts at his former high school.
Last Thanksgiving, he sent this e-mail to his family: "It's amazing that this part of my life is about to end. It seems like a few days ago that I arrived in San José, and now I'm five days away from leaving. This experience has been the best thing that ever happened to me, and I appreciate all the support you all gave me throughout. My village will be forever thankful to you guys, and you can know that you really have made friends in Costa Rica."
The e-mails and the stories he has shared since provide only a hint of the breadth and depth of Adam's experiences and the strength of the bonds he developed with his host family, his students, and his peers in the Global Routes program.
Adam's experiences were eye-opening to us, as parents, and we continue to be amazed and inspired by Adam's growth, development, and contributions during and after his time-off experiences. As Adam learned, so did we.
With a combined forty years of experience in public policy, we have been able to contribute to debates and initiatives regarding what can be done to improve educational outcomes for students. As teachers and parents, we've had the opportunity to help guide students in their options regarding post-high school choices. But, as effective educators will confide, the right personal stories can be extremely instructive. And we've rarely encountered stories as powerful as those of students who've taken time off before or during college. They have been able to learn more about themselves, and, at an age when many still call them kids, they have given back to the world in ways many adults could not even imagine.
This book is based on the stories of the dozens of students we've met and interviewed who've chosen to follow their own intrepid paths. It also is based on the experiences of dozens more families, counselors, program leaders, teachers, and other educators who have supported them along the way. The examples and practical advice in these pages are offered in the hope that many other young Americans and their families will step off the traditional road and benefit from the gap-year advantage--and come to believe, as we do, that we can all gain a better perspective on our place in the world and the wisdom that will help us in our journey through it.
We look forward to hearing more stories and learning of your journeys in the months and years ahead.
Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson Advance, North Carolina 2005
You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.
THE STAKES ARE HIGH for the almost fifteen million high school students who will return to classrooms this fall, most with the goal of attending a college or university immediately after graduation. Armed with guides, marketing brochures, and Web site information, parents will diligently do what they can to see that their child's class rank is advanced, SAT and ACT scores are maximized, and extracurricular activities are amassed--whatever it takes to ensure that their child is accepted into the right college.
Come spring, acceptance letters will be received at homes across the country as students and parents wait--anxiously, expectantly--to see which colleges have said yes.
Congratulations! The chances are good that your child has gotten into at least one school. The more than two thousand days he or she has spent in classrooms, and the time, energy, and resources you have devoted to the application process have paidoff. Many parents will breathe a sigh of relief. Their child has been accepted at college! And now he or she is one step closer to realizing their part of the American Dream.
Five years from now, however, many students and their parents may wish they had focused as much on having success in college as they had on gaining access to college.
According to the American College Testing service, less than half of those entering traditional four-year colleges after high school will have graduated after five years. One-quarter will have dropped out during their freshman year. Of those in college, many will report that they do not know why they are there or how their classes relate to any life or career goal. Many of those in school, as well as those who have left, will have accumulated considerable debt without a realistic chance of finding a job that matches their educational level.
For a number of these students, a gap-year plan may make the difference between graduating successfully from college with a strategy for life beyond and floating uncertainly on a path of young adulthood that may be accompanied by significant financial and emotional costs. Through the gap year, for the first time in their highly structured lives, students may have the opportunity to discover and follow their passion and to truly live in the present.
The benefits of a gap-year plan include gaining confidence, focus, and discipline, being able to bridge the gap between formal education and the real world, and building a résumé that will put students ahead of their peers in appealing to employers or graduate schools. In addition, students (and their parents!) with a gap-year plan may save thousands of dollars in college tuition, student loans, and scholarships. Less tangible, but perhaps most important, gap-year students will have the experience oftaking responsibility for their lives and thereby gaining greater perspective on their place in the world and how they may uniquely contribute to their communities and families now and in the future.
A gap-year plan is not for every student, but it may make sense for your child or another young person you know. In this book, you will meet students who have incorporated such a plan into their college strategy. You will also meet their parents and others who have provided support, wisdom, and counsel. These supporters, as you will see, have even learned more about themselves along the way.
You've met Adam. He was in the top 20 percent of his class in high school and a natural comedian who excelled at sports. He was determined to see the world beyond his community and get a sense of his place in it before going to college. His gap-year experiences so far have included attending Tracker School in the wilds of New Jersey, teaching in Costa Rica, working on an environmental conservation trust in New Zealand, and teaching environmental studies to inner-city youth in Texas. In addition to describing this time as the "best experience of my life," he now will apply to colleges that more closely match the growing interests he's nurtured in education, the environment, and service during his gap year.
Rusty Whatley's planning for a gap year began in the summer before his senior year. Due to some health problems during his high school years in Birmingham, Alabama, Rusty and his parents agreed that he could use the time off before college to gain strength as well as experience in vigorous outdoor activities.
From the list of options developed through consulting with the Center for Interim Programs, Rusty and his parents settled on two programs: in the first semester after high school graduation,he worked as a cabin steward aboard the Mystic Whaler, a vintage sailing ship that provides educational and recreational cruises on major rivers and ports in the Northeast; during the second semester, he worked as a field hand on a polo ranch in Hawaii, performing daily chores such as building fences and pitching hay.
A critical part of this planning was Rusty's gaining a deferral of admission to the University of Alabama, his college of choice. Rusty was responsible for submitting this request letter, the central point of which was his explanation of what he would be doing during his year off.
Among the goals that Rusty and his parents set for the year, that of his gaining physical strength was a clear benefit. Other unanticipated outcomes included his falling in love with ocean sailing, gaining an increased respect for what it means to work with one's hands, and his becoming more aware of why he wanted to go to college. Today, Rusty is enrolled at the University of Alabama and doing well.
Joseph George Demille grew up in South Boston and dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to work odd jobs in order to support his mother, brothers, and himself. He discovered opportunities for community service through a friend who was participating in City Year in Boston. Among his responsibilities with City Year was leading a service day, during which he instructed and managed people in revitalizing a gym in Roslindale, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. His obvious leadership abilities caught the eye of a Boston Globe reporter, and Joe was featured on the front page of the Sunday Living Arts section of the newspaper. A few weeks later, Boston College officials offered him a full four-year scholarship. Joe worked two jobs that summer--at the Department of Youth Services in Bostonand at the local AIDS Action Committee--before starting school.
Erika Dickson was a sophomore at the University of Michigan when she came to see that she was burned out. She told her parents that she should stop wasting their money because she didn't even know what to major in yet. Instead of leaving school, Erika drew on her school's encouragement to go abroad and did research on the Internet. She took a semester off to travel to Ghana. There she lived with a host family in a small village and taught English. "The experience changed my life," Erika recalls. She credits the experience with her deciding to major in premed. She plans to return to Ghana and "do a lot of work in Africa."
These stories--as well as the statistics on college dropout rates--should lead you as a parent of a student considering post-high school options to step back early in the college application process and ask yourself a few questions:
• Have you asked your child why she wants to go to college after high school (instead of where does she want to go to school)?
• Are you focused on ensuring your child has access to the right college--or on her success in college and life beyond?
• Is your child--your eighteen-, nineteen-, or twenty-year-old--ready to succeed in college now?
• Does your child have not only the academic preparation, but also the focus, discipline, and maturity to take full advantage of perhaps the most pivotal transition period in her young life?
If you hesitated before answering these questions, it may be time for a reality check.
NOT THE SAME OL' COLLEGE GAME
Like many parents of high school students today, you probably are familiar with how the college application game was played in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Even if you didn't attend a post-secondary institution yourself, you are likely to be familiar with someone who did. The fact is that the college game has changed significantly over the past three decades.
Let's take a snapshot of the 1970s as a case in point and, in particular, consider three trends--students, finances, and graduation rates.
In the good ol' days, there was roughly the same number of baby boomers as there are teenagers today. In 1974, there were about fifteen million students in high school (grades nine through twelve) and about half of them went directly to college after graduation. The majority of those attending post-secondary institutions were "traditional" students--that is, they were in their late teens or early twenties, were enrolled full-time, and worked little or not at all. Almost half of these college students received a degree within four years. At a price: The class of 1974 accumulated approximately $90 million in student loans. Even though there may have been gas lines and high interest rates, college graduates who were persistent found jobs--jobs that matched their educational level and interest.
Fast-forward thirty years to today. There is little doubt that a college education is more valuable today than ever. The National Commission on the High School Senior Year (developed through a partnership among the U.S. Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to study the value of the last year of secondary school) states the issue bluntly: "In the agricultural age, post-secondaryeducation was a pipe dream for most Americans. In the industrial age, it was the birthright of only a few. By the space age, it became common sense for many. Today, it is just common sense for all."
One reason many assert that higher education makes sense as a goal for most students is dollars. For example, it has been documented that there is an income gap of more than $50,000 per year between a high school dropout and a holder of a college degree--and it lasts a lifetime.
TIME OUT OR BURN OUT
A significant difference for today's students is the intense pressure to be accepted by the "right college" and the related threats of anxiety, stress, and "burning out." Studies reported by the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 2002), for example, reveal that average schoolkids in recent decades report more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950s.
Harvard College officials summarized the impact of the pressure on the current generation in a widely noted essay released in 2002. In "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation," William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid; Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions; and Charles Ducey, director of the bureau of study counsel--all at Harvard--argue that students who are on the treadmill of getting into the right schools (sometimes starting before kindergarten) and the right colleges, under pressure to find the right jobs and drive the right car through the right neighborhood, risk emerging as "dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp." They become adults who, looking back from the fasttrack, have "missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal." The writers conclude, from their unique perspective as college admissions officers: "Let us hope that more of them take time out before burn out becomes the hallmark of their generation."
Harvard administrators aren't the only ones who are aware that many students aren't ready for college.
Hal Shear's unique perspective stems from his work with the federal government in running Job Corps and Neighborhood Youth Corps programs. His daughter, Anya, took time off before college, a decision he supported. It confirmed his notion that the ages of eighteen through twenty are especially crucial for students who need to gain a sense of responsibility. Gap-year programs, both privately and publicly sponsored, he says, can be of immense value in getting young people over the hump and starting them off on the right foot. Anya's increased sense of personal responsibility during the year she spent working as an assistant in a high-tech firm contributed to her graduating in four years from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The undercurrent of concern over students' readiness for higher education is reflected on Web sites where current and former college officials, who may be reluctant to voice their opinions formally, exchange messages.
"I was a physics professor and taught many freshmen, including premeds. Many of these students simply were not ready for college. They lacked the maturity, skills, and so on, and quite a few, particularly the premeds, were there by virtue of parental pressure. In fact, the problems of these unfortunate students were of concern to all faculty members." So reads one entry on an Internet message board. The entry concludes, "On the other hand, many students who had worked or done special studiesfor a couple of years after high school did brilliantly--they were studying because they wanted to do so."
THE PRESSURE IS ON
With the pressure on, most high school students today report they plan to attend college or university following graduation. Indeed, more than 60 percent of them will achieve the goal of entering college (up from about 50 percent in 1974). Once on campus, however, the student profile differs from what the parents may remember. Less than 20 percent of the students in a college or university today (including community colleges) are traditional.
One reason the college application game has changed is that, in spite of increased competition to get into the most selective schools, access to college isn't much of a problem today. There are currently more than 4,000 post-secondary institutions (30 percent more than in 1974), most of which would love to have your child on their campus--accompanied, of course, by tuition and probably room and board fees. The average institution of higher learning accepts more than 70 percent of those that apply. In other words, if your child wants to get into a college or a university, the chances are that he or she will.
Have you noticed that there is more marketing material arriving at your door from colleges than you remember thirty years ago? Competition for your child--and the money flow that follows him--is growing. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, 70 percent of post-secondary institutions have undergone a public relations overhaul to make themselves more attractive to potential students.
High school counselors are professionals dedicated to helping you and your child sort through the maze of post-secondary options. However, in public schools, the ratio of students to counselors is 490 to 1 on average. (It's better in private schools.) These experts, to put it mildly, are stretched thin.
For additional assistance in the application process, some parents turn to the private sector. College consultants can charge thousands of dollars for advice on issues such as choosing the right school, nailing the interview, or writing the perfect admissions essay. There also is growing business in preparation classes for the SAT and ACT exams and sales of college guides and related merchandise. There are even getting-into-college camps that, for almost $3,000, will take students through twelve days of test prep, applications strategies, and college visits.
For those who are accepted by a college and have financial barriers, money generally is available for those willing to sign on the dotted line. Federal student loans have jumped more than 300 percent since 1974. Just between 1990 and 2000, federal student lending doubled from $16.4 billion to $37.5 billion. The number of loans allocated each year during the same time frame rose from 4.5 million to 9.4 million--more than double! In addition, there is a growing trend toward private student lending options. According to the College Board (a nonprofit organization perhaps best known for its SAT program) students borrowed almost $4 billion in 2000-2001 from private lending institutions (compared to $1.5 billion in 1995-1996).
It may be an understatement to say that higher education is big business in America today.
Let's go back to your child who is planning to become oneof the more than eight million students enrolled at a four-year college or university in the United States in the near future. And let's say that he or she is accepted and decides to attend the fall after high school graduation. As noted earlier in this chapter, less than half of those entering college will have earned a degree within five years.
It's safe to say that for many of today's high school students (and their parents), the concept of college success--defined by graduating with a degree in four years--could turn into a more circuitous path that may be accompanied by significant financial and emotional challenges.
The bottom line is that applying to college is becoming an increasingly stressful, complex, and expensive process that focuses primarily on admission as the endgame. The reality is that success in college today--as in work and life--is not solely the responsibility of an institution or government. It is the responsibility of the student, ideally with the support of the parents and other committed adults.
As a committed parent, guardian, or other adult caring for a high school student, what can you do to help your child?
The first step is to recognize that you are uniquely positioned to support and guide your student when it comes to such an important decision as to where and when to go to college. In fact, surveys report that most teenagers believe that helping them take school seriously is one of the most valuable roles parents can play in their lives.
In this book you'll meet a number of students--and their parents--who have benefited from the gap-year advantage. You will learn the details and keys to structuring a plan that makes sense for your child's interests, talents, and potential.
It is worth reiterating that attending college is a valuable goalfor most students. But it may not be the right course for your child right now! Taking time off may not make sense for all students. But it just might provide a foundation of wisdom, experience, responsibility, and perspective that will help your child to get the most out of college--and life beyond.
THE GAP-YEAR ADVANTAGE. Copyright © 2005 by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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