The Gift of Academic Maturity

There’s been a lot of talk recently about compressing college education into three years. My suggestion is postponing it for one. 

Management scholar Henry Mintzberg is renowned for critiquing the MBA as poor management education because the wrong people attend graduate school at the wrong time. In his book Managers not MBAs, Mintzberg notes that “trying to teach management to individuals who have never managed is like trying to teach psychology to individuals who have never met another person.” 

The current state of higher education, not just the MBA, is subject to a similar problem—it is not possible to teach complex material and discuss ultimate issues of life with students who are not mature or experienced enough to comment on such issues.  Having taught thousands of students and accumulated many battle scars, I echo social scientist Charles Murray when he stated at a recent conference, “After high school, students should get a one-way plane ticket to some other country and learn how to survive there before giving college a try.”

This “gap year” that Murray alluded to is designed to let young adults live for a year in a world that is not structured around semesters, grades, and social promotion before going to college.  It shouldn’t be a hibernation period when they abstain from adult responsibilities.  Quite the opposite—they should develop a sense of self-reliance through work or service. 

A gap year can come in many forms. Some enter the military or the Peace Corps; others experience the “good ol’ real world” and learn self-sufficiency; others enroll in formally designed programs, such as those administered by the Center for Interim Programs.   

Powerful anecdotal evidence supports the benefits of gap years.  For example, some students taking gap years with the Center for Interim Programs became interested in medical careers after volunteering in Central American Hospitals.

Despite such evidence, the practice of taking a gap year is not widely accepted in the United States. The irrational fear that students will forgo their education once they’ve chosen to take a break, combined with the wage premium that supposedly comes from having a college degree, make most students (and their helicopter parents) wary about postponing entry into higher education.   

Such fears are not justified. Although parents may worry that their children will never return to college, people who interface with students taking gap years, such as William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, and Holly Bull, director at the Center for Interim Programs,  do not see a mass exodus from the college track. As for the supposed college earnings premium, it may well be enhanced because students discover what they want to learn when they delay matriculation for a year.

Furthermore, a gap year may help reduce the overemphasis on education credentials as the way to get a job.  The current higher education system, with its degraded standards and inflated grades, is generally little more than a holding tank for unemployed youths. The average student describes the college experience as simply “getting my degree.” We produce young adults with fancy pieces of paper, but whose knowledge and skills are barely more than a high school student. 

With such a glut of unqualified graduates, employers ratchet up their credential requirements. Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, summed up that problem in a recent NY Times article: “When everyone is wearing rhinestones, it gets harder to determine who is wearing diamonds.” Additionally, the overabundance of unserious and disengaged students pushes the truly exceptional student toward burnout trying to bulk up their resumes.

If prospective students would simply take a little time to find some direction outside the classroom, they’d be more likely to approach their studies with a purpose, rather than viewing college as a jaded customer at a buffet of credits. 

One school does recommend a gap year—Harvard University. The school apparently recognizes that successful applicants to Harvard may be heading toward burnout at age 18, and proposes that admitted students wait a year. See “Time Out or Burn Out” by Harvard dean of admissions William Fitzsimmons.

Yet Harvard is almost unique in suggesting a gap year. Nearly all of our colleges and universities want as many students as possible—and they want them now. We need a call to action to “move the cheese” for institutions of higher education because they are not going to voluntarily withhold the key to the ivory tower for immature students. 

Anyone discussing college plans with a prospective student should confidently offer the idea of taking a gap year.  There are useful articles and books (e.g. “The Gap-Year Advantage” by Haigler and Nelson) that will keep the discussion from degenerating into “an adult’s intentions versus a youth’s emotions.”  Many students are apt to think that an adult who suggests a gap year is interfering with their desires. After all, college is a lot of fun. The trick is to convince these students that entering college with more maturity will help them in the long run.

The gap year idea would also receive a boost if employers, especially prestigious ones, announced that they are impressed not only with academic credentials, but also with evidence of maturity.  Not just any sort of gap year creates the desired maturity, but many definitely will.

Many—perhaps most—young Americans arrive at college expecting it to be as easy as the schooling they’re used to. Their attitudes contribute to the low standards and low achievement levels that have become sadly commonplace. I believe that a year of more of experience with reality outside of the academic environment would do a lot to change that.

Dr. Jason Fertig is an assistant professor of Management at the University of Southern Indiana.