Through my wife’s military career, we’ve been fortunate to be around British and Australians – fortunate in that it exposed us to new ideas and customs (and terms — we’re never wearing a fanny pack in England). So, when Malia Obama announced she was doing a “gap year,” it was something we were familiar with. I think it is a great idea — but what else would you expect from a family that spent 18 months full-time in an RV with three kids right after Mary Claire retired from the military (as opposed to rushing off to a new career and location).
A gap year is unusual to many Americans. As such, Malia’s decision elicited expected criticisms from people who think a kid should go right to college. But, as a college faculty member, I can tell you there are kids in college who are there solely because they’re trapped in the rhetoric of “go to college,” and it’s the next item on their checklist of life. As a result, their grades are average or worse and many end up taking extra years to finish college.
My observations have been that these kids would have benefited by waiting a bit and doing something like a Gap Year. And guess what? Research backs this up (I like it when research confirms my anecdotal observations). Kids who take a gap year show up on campus motivated, have a broader outlook on life, are more confident, and ready to get to work. As such, this ends up being a cost savings because the kid is focused on his or her studies and major.
Consider that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP test high school kids take) shows that “just under 40 percent of students score at college and career ready levels.” In others words, there are a lot of high school grads not academically prepared for college.
So, it’s not surprising that 40 percent of college kids who start at four-year colleges don’t end up with their bachelor’s until after six years. While gap years might seem expensive, in some cases, they might end up saving money.
Obviously, a gap year isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re thinking that your MilKid might benefit from a gap year, keep in mind that it’s more than living in the basement and working at McDonald’s. Research (again), shows that kids who postpone college to do some minimal work while they “find themselves” end up underachieving once they get to campus.
As the author of There is Life After College, Jeffrey Selingo, notes:
“For a gap year to have a significant impact on success in college, and later in the working world, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything a student has experienced before.”
These “transformative” events could be a year working at Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation’s Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch, Germany (here’s the link for employment). Or missionary work in a developing country.
Even Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, USA (Ret), has gotten behind the benefits of a gap year. He heads up the Franklin Project, which is trying to create national service-type jobs for high school graduates not ready to jump into college. As McChrystal states:
“There’s this rush to figure out what you’re going to do…We have a cult of expectations to get started in life because you don’t want to fall behind. Life is not linear. Neither should the pathways of getting started.”
If the idea of a Gap Year interests you, here are some resources from the Washington Post:
Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., provides information on Gap Year programs (in part because they find that kids who take a gap year do better than those who go straight to college).
Finally, a good source is the American Gap Association. This is a nonprofit group that works with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to accredit and set standards for gap year programs.
Again, a gap year is not for all, but maybe for some MilKids it’s something to consider. It’s not your uncle’s backpacking trip across Europe anymore.