While I normally cast a skeptical eye on fashionable trends in American education, count me among those who fully support the “gap year” between high school and college. Already a growing phenomenon, its popularity will surely increase following the announcement that Malia Obama will delay her inaugural semester at Harvard until the fall of 2017. As the New York Times noted earlier this week, a bevy of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that gap-year students arrive on campus better prepared—academically, socially, and emotionally—than their non-gap-year classmates. University administrators have thus become some of the biggest advocates for postponing enrollment.
What they don’t seem to appreciate is that the gap-year trend represents a subtle indictment of their institutions. After all, if people believe that a gap year will accelerate students’ maturation, help them cultivate practical and/or vocational skills, make them more sophisticated, or give them (in the words of journalist Susan Greenberg) “a newfound sense of purpose and perspective,” the implication is that colleges will fall short in each of these areas. For that matter, the gap year raises important questions about why so many people are attending college in the first place.
Once upon a time, America’s university system functioned as a bridge between the frivolities of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. These days, however, students can all but major in frivolity, while remaining shielded from inconvenient facts and uncomfortable realities. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray has written, “Today’s colleges are structured to prolong adolescence, not to midwife maturity.”
It’s worse than that, actually. On campuses across the country, students spend four years marinating in a culture of narcissism, identity politics, victimhood, and faux outrage. From “trigger warnings” to “safe spaces,” schools have made a mockery of their traditional mission. “The whole purpose of college,” former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg said recently, “is to learn how to deal with difficult situations—not run away from them.” Far too many administrators, professors, and students disagree with him.
That’s one reason a gap year can be so valuable: It allows incoming freshmen to face real-life challenges and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them, before entering the campus bubble.
Many believe that gap years are particularly worthwhile for students who attend elite private schools such as Washington’s Sidwell Friends (from which Malia Obama will graduate next month). After plowing through an intense curriculum and running the college-admissions gauntlet, the thinking goes, these students risk burnout if they go straight from high school to an elite university. Better that they should “take a breather,” spend a year on non-academic pursuits, and then enroll.
That’s probably true. But it’s worth remembering that gap years also make sense for less-privileged students who may be on the fence about whether college is the right choice for them. Many would benefit enormously from apprenticing with a company and/or learning the basics of a trade. Indeed, such experience could lay the groundwork for their future careers—and it might convince them that a four-year college degree is not essential to those plans.
Of course, a large number of employers continue to treat the bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite, even for jobs that, in a more rational world, would not require it. As Charles Murray has emphasized, the people applying for these jobs should be judged on their qualifications and abilities, as opposed to a credential that has become steadily less meaningful over time. The solution, in his view, is to introduce widespread certification tests modeled on the CPA exam:
Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college.
It’s a compelling idea, and we may eventually get there. Until then, let’s hope that more and more high-school seniors recognize the possibilities of a gap year and make the most of them.