College Can Wait

College Can Wait

This time of year in 1988, I was putting the finishing touches on my high school education, with college at the University of Illinois waiting for me in the fall.

I felt…not much. 

Graduating high school was a minimal expectation, rather than momentous. While I liked some subjects (English) better than others (math), no one would have confused my effort with anything beyond going through the motions necessary to keep various authority figures off my back. 

(And not always succeeding.)

While the increased independence part of college held some appeal, I wouldn’t say that I was actually looking forward to that experience either. I definitely had no concrete ideas about what I might like to study or learn or do beyond vague notions of a reasonably fun social life. 

In hindsight, I would’ve been a good candidate for a gap year, a chance to have new experiences, new responsibilities, and to develop some actual agency around the choices I was making, rather than sleepwalking into what was next expected of me. 

The sad thing is that I was so listless, I never would’ve mustered the energy to figure out what I would or could do for a year. Planning a gap year requires motivation I didn’t possess.

For obvious reasons, the pandemic triggered an unprecedented wave of interest in gap years, though in many cases, that interest was not driven by the listless drifters, but the gung ho who’d strived their way into highly selective schools and didn’t want to miss out on the special experience of attending those institutions in person.

Even the term “gap year” sounds like something reserved for the privileged, which is a shame because I think we should be discussing its uses and purposes from a standpoint of whether or not it is good for the ultimate welfare of individual students not whether it stands to be the latest trend amongst those already accustomed to elite enrichment experiences.

Maybe we should just call it, “Not going to college right away just because that’s what you’re expected to do.”

Not as catchy as “gap year,” but I think it would do some good to normalize the idea that there is nothing sacrosanct about starting college at age 18 or thereabouts. I get that some may feel that delaying college means “falling behind.” Even if life is a race — and we should probably reject that notion as well — but even if, it doesn’t make any sense to start a race when it’s not clear what direction you should be running in.

I would’ve benefited from a year doing just about anything other than school. Working would probably have been the best thing, given that the two years of work between college and graduate school turned me into a stellar student, but anything that required me to be outside of my comfort zone would’ve been beneficial.

The trick is that I didn’t know enough to realize there was a lot I didn’t know, which is why those of us with more miles under our tires need to be useful to those who can’t imagine how they might benefit from time away from school. 

I get that this could be tough for parents to swallow, to pause just prior to crossing something that looks like a finish line, but speaking from experience teaching thousands of first-year college students over nearly 20 years, I can attest that the danger of slouching forward from inertia, rather than moving on with intention, is significant.

I had many conversations over the years with bright, engaging students who I was certain would go on to great things in their lives, but who also were on their way out of college because they could not muster the spirit necessary to keep themselves enrolled in good standing. Some needed a break from the stress of school. Others needed something that would kick them into gear, but what they had in common is that they were not ready to take advantage of the awesome potential post-secondary education holds for those who are ready to engage with it.

If a young person you care about is going through the motions of high school, and seems indifferent or vague about college, consider having a serious talk about what they might do instead for a year. 

Not going to college (right away, anyway) may be one of the best things they ever do.