Higher Education

A hybrid proposal to the gap year.

Have you heard of the “gap year” concept?  Basically, the concept suggests that a student should consider taking a year between high school and college to work, explore, and mature.  It’s the notion that a seamless and immediate transition from high school to college may not be the best approach to career preparation. While there may be some truth to that, I don’t believe too many colleges outwardly support this idea out of fear that a much greater number of students would ultimately choose not to attend college especially with today’s already frustrating college-going rates. Frankly, I’m not interested in arguing the value of a college degree in this post.  Instead, I’m interested in exploring the idea of the gap year under a different structure – a way to leverage the perceived value of that “real world” experience within the confines of a college experience and curriculum structure.

What I like about the gap year concept is two-fold.  First, I think it provides an individual time to get out of high school mode and really think about what they want to do in order to make the best college decision for him or her.  Rather than make a “safe” choice (or even too radical a choice), a little time in the real world might just ignite something within the student’s soul.  Second, I think students should try to find a job and work full-time for a period of time if for no other reason than to realize that minimum wage or even slightly better may not pay for that car they want or that trip they want to take; let alone paying for cable and utilities.

Now, consider a college that takes this gap year concept and makes employment a component of the general curriculum.  Here is my vision (albeit potentially oversimplified). A college requires second-year students to enroll in “Real World 200”.  Consider the following course requirements:

  • Students must seek and ultimately secure full-time employment.
  • Students must maintain a daily journal.  Content is focused on what they learn each day from experiences interacting with others, following orders, meeting expectations, etc.
  • Students must participate in a 2-hour course during each semester focused on discussion of the job, what they learn, what they like, don’t like and ultimately what it’s helping them to learn – finances, getting to work, etc.
  • Students must complete a course paper related to what they learned and how they will use what they learned to improve their college experience and opportunities in their final two years.

My vision is a full-year program providing 16 credits per semester (14 credits for employment and 2 credits for the course discussion).  Ultimately, the student’s grade is based on participation in the 2-hour course, securing a job, the daily journal entries, and a final paper.

I completely recognize that this concept has not been vetted to satisfy many reading this post.  While many may seek to identify reasons that this won’t work, I wanted to share my idea for bigger purpose – I’d like to encourage college faculty and administrators to consider looking at general curriculum differently.

There are colleges that approach learning one course at a time. There are colleges that don’t issue grades.  There are colleges that don’t have a general curriculum program.  Colleges are being challenged at local, state, and the national level to produce greater results to substantiate the cost.   Rating and ranking systems are being introduced to suggest that we can arbitrarily determine the quality of a college in comparison to all others.  I don’t see this pressure going away soon and while I don’t endorse government-created rating systems, I do appreciate the notion that education must evolve at a greater pace than it has.  And, this isn’t the responsibility of government.  This is our responsibility in higher education.  We should challenge the traditional approach to college education.  Is four years the right amount of time in college?  Does time really matter?  Are 16 credits the right amount of credits per semester?  Is a 2-semester system still the right approach?

Colleges and universities are in a dogfight with each other for students, particularly in the Midwest.  What if we embrace being different not just to be different but because different may produce better results?  Change is hard.  Change takes time.  Admission offices recruit students differently today compared to five years ago.  Recruiting offices are adapting because they must to secure enrollment objectives.  I believe there are many people like me in higher education (faculty and staff) who have day-dreamed about doing things differently, but unfortunately our lives get in the way and we quickly fall back into doing most the same way we’ve done it in the past.

For you dreamers out there, what do you think of my idea for a “Real World 200”, or better yet, do you have your own idea(s) that you believe would challenge the traditional methods of education and ultimately improve our students’ experience? Don’t focus on being realistic and conservative.  Some of the best ideas stem from being unrealistic and radical. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.  What is your idea?

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3 thoughts on “A hybrid proposal to the gap year.

  1. Eric Jones says:

    Joel, may I recommend looking into Drexel University’s 6 month on, 6 off program? It combines class work with real world jobs and internships. Specifically in their busines college (I believe).

    Also, a question I’ve had – why haven’t 4-year universities capitalized on “trade programs,” such as plumbing, electrician, etc…? Why leave those to trade schools? The curriculum does not need to be the same as other majors, nor does the price or credit requirements – but it would certainly draw more students. Just a thought – very much enjoy the blog posts – keep ’em coming!

  2. I have wondered if a year working in a high-poverty environment would draw more attention to the impact people can have on a community. If a state or college or university could find a way to organize this, perhaps it would work similar to VISTAs, which are already doing similar work. Groups of students could scatter across the state and work in teams with the chamber and other nonprofits. Regardless of the profession, there isn’t a person who wouldn’t be better off working a year of service in a few particular areas (education, health care, community building, etc.). And I’d like to see the diary be a public account (imagine a statewide blog with dozens of students contributing) that can be handed off to the next team of students. If the community could see what work was being done, and what still needed to be done, it could benefit far beyond that person’s year of service.

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