When the White House announced Sunday that Malia Obama would attend Harvard University but take a year off first, it sparked a lot of conversation about “gap years.”
— Susan Svrluga
Malia Obama’s decision to take a “gap year” before heading to Harvard has made national headlines, and for good reason. A year of real-world experience before college may be the most powerful way to improve educational outcomes and post-college success — not just for the president’s daughter, but for young Americans from all backgrounds.Today, most of our students race, without pause, along the treadmill from high school to college.For many, earning admission to a top college has become the sole focus of high school — often at the expense of authentic learning, risk-taking and exploration. And without time for reflection, college can feel like more of the same, leading author William Deresiewicz to brand today’s students as excellent sheep — great at what they’re doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it.This conveyor belt to college has significant costs. Nationally, one-third of college freshmen don’t return for a second year. Students take, on average, six years to complete a degree and only 9 percent of those from low-income backgrounds will do so, according to a recent study.Mental health is an equally troubling concern: a majority of students — from the Ivy League to community colleges — report feeling consistently anxious, overwhelmed and hopeless.And, for those resilient enough to make it through, few will graduate with the skills valued most in our fast-changing, global economy. One recent study showed that while 96 percent of college presidents think their graduates are ready for the workforce, just 11 percent of employers agree.If the existing approach is failing our kids, country and economy, how do we fix it?Malia’s choice may provide a useful clue. We need to get back to basics and ask: “What do today’s kids most need to learn, and how do we redesign the system around that?”What if, instead of arriving on campus burnt out, our students approached higher education with a set of burning questions rooted in real world experiences? What if every student was prepared to declare not just a major but also a mission? What if all students brought the maturity and sense of purpose needed to make college count?Through my experience as founder and chief executive officer of Global Citizen Year, I’ve observed — both through anecdotes and hard data — that the most powerful way to change the outcomes of college is to change the inputs.There is growing research showing that taking a year off boosts motivation, confidence and achievement and, for many, is a cost savings, as it decreases the timeline to graduation.Middlebury found that students who defer admission for a year outperform their peers in academic and extracurricular engagement on campus.And the American Gap Association reported that students who take a year before college are 75 percent more likely to be “happy” or “extremely satisfied” with their careers post-college.This is not a luxury for the elite or a remedial path for kids not ready to go to college. When we enable students to step out of the classroom and focus on what really matters, they discover who they are and who they hope to become. And they do that before someone (whether a parent, benefactor or government program) makes the single largest investment of a young person’s life: a college education.Malia is making a wise choice to step off the treadmill. If we’re lucky, she will inspire a new generation with the confidence to follow her lead.It’s time to re-brand the “gap year” as what it has the potential to be — a “bridge year” or “launch pad” — and to make it a more encouraged, accepted and accessible option for kids from all backgrounds.We can’t afford not to.