Submitted by Joe O'Shea on January 16, 2014 - 3:00am
Over the next few weeks, students around the country will receive offers of admission to colleges and universities. But before students jump online and accept an offer, I have one piece of advice for them: They might be better off not going to college next year.
Instead, they should think about taking a gap year, to defer college for a year to live and volunteer in a developing country.
In the traditional sort of gap year, students immerse themselves in a developing community to volunteer with a nonprofit organization by teaching, working with local youth, or assuming some other community role.
Gap years have been rising in popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. I’ve spent the last few years researching what happens to young people when they have such an immersive experience in a community radically different from their own.
The answer, in short, is that gap years can help change students in ways the world needs.
The challenges of our time demand an educational system that can help young people to become citizens of the world. We need our students to be smart, critical and innovative thinkers but also people of character who use their talents to help others. Gap years help young adults understand themselves, their relationships, and the world around them, which deepens capacities and perspectives crucial for effective citizenship. They help students become better thinkers and scholars, filled with passion, purpose, and perspective.
How do people learn from gap years?
One principal lesson is clear: We often develop most when our understandings of ourselves and the world around us are challenged -- when we engage with people and ideas that are different. Despite this insight, we often prioritize comfort and self-segregate into groups of sameness. We tend to surround ourselves with people who think, talk, and look similar to us.
Taking a gap year speeds our development by upsetting these patterns. Trying to occupy another's way of life in a different culture -- living with a new family, speaking the language, integrating into a community, perhaps working with local youth, for instance -- these are valuable experiences that help young people understand themselves, develop empathy and virtue, and expand their capacity to see the world from others' perspectives.
Traditionally, U.S. higher education has championed the idea of liberal arts as a way of getting students to engage with difference, to expand their worldview beyond their known universe by (in the words of a Harvard research committee on education) “questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection... by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations.”
However, formal classroom education alone cannot accomplish this aim. The classroom is limited in its ability to engage students with difference and contribute to their development as able citizens. We also need new experiences that inspire critical self-reflection to cultivate the right moral feelings and dispositions.
What’s important here is the productive dissonance that these long-term, immersive gap year experiences provide. It's unlikely that a young person staying in America -- or even traveling overseas for a short time -- would have assumptions about herself and the world around her challenged with the same intensity, frequency, and breadth as in a gap year in a developing community.
It's interesting that spending time in developing communities can help young people appreciate ways of living that we need more of -- such as a more active and intimate sense of community. Going overseas also helps to cultivate a type of independence and self-confidence that staying close to home in a familiar environment probably does not.
Furthermore, taking the traditional kind of gap year after high school helps students to take full advantage of their time in college. One telling observation is that many students who take gap years end up changing their intended major after returning. During college, their gap year experiences enrich their courses, strengthen co-curricular endeavors, and animate undergraduate research and creative projects.
To be clear: Though these gap year students are working in partnership with a community organization and aim to make some positive impact, the students typically, at least in the short term, gain more than they are able to give. But this empowers them to bring new perspectives to bear in other personal, professional, and civic efforts. Gap years, borrowing a line from the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, can help create leaders for the world’s future.
Despite the benefits of these kinds of gap year experiences, too few Americans take gap years and too few colleges encourage them. The treadmill from high school to college makes it hard for students to see alternative paths. But that is changing. More people and organizations are beginning to see gap years for the formative experiences they can be, given with the proper training, support, and community work. In fact, all the Ivy League universities now endorse gap years for interested students. And they’re right to do so.
Many parents and students are nervous about the idea of spending an extended period in a developing country. But these experiences, especially through structured gap year programs like Global Citizen Year, are generally very safe and supported. Are there some risks? Of course, there are risks with any travel or change -- but the risks are worth taking. The investment in taking a gap year will pay dividends throughout one’s college career and beyond as one’s life and society is enriched.
However, one central challenge that remains is how to finance gap years for students from lower-income families. This is also beginning to change. The University of North Carolina and Princeton University, for instance, have both begun to subsidize gap years for incoming students. Other organizations, such as Omprakash, now offer low-cost volunteer placements as well as scholarships to those with need. And with the help of crowdfunding sites, students are able to fund-raise for these experiences with greater ease. Despite these efforts, if gap years are to really expand, we’ll need more institutions or governments to offset the costs.
Higher education is society’s last mass effort to really shape the character and trajectories of our young people. Let’s help them take more advantage of the precious time in college by taking a gap year before.
Joe O’Shea is director of Florida State University's Office of Undergraduate Research and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs (Johns Hopkins University Press).
To: President Barack H. Obama Subject: Missing from Your College Plan: 45 Million Peanut Butter Sandwiches. Per Week.
Forty-five million peanut butter sandwiches a week?
This 45 million idea came to me the other day, at a sink. I was washing peanut butter from the wooden paddle hungry students use every day to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the Boston community college where I work. Bread donated via Panera and the Minute Man High School Parents Association. PB&J bought with donor funds.
Why not, I thought, one peanut butter sandwich per school day for each of the nine million students (source) on a Pell Grant? How many of these are the same students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch in high school? No one knows and no one is counting. How many are from households on food stamps? No one’s asking, either.
Why not, then, 45 million peanut butter sandwiches at colleges each week? Until we come up with a better idea.
In your proposed evaluations and rankings of colleges, where’s hunger? Or poverty? Is hunger an obstacle to college completion?
We don’t know. Hot lunches are better, but let’s start simple. Just give the nine million on Pell Grants a peanut butter sandwich at school every day.
Most? Many of these students, Mr. President, received federal free and reduced lunch in high school, didn’t they? Why? Because their families cannot afford enough food for the family. Why have we, the people, snatched lunch from these low-income students going on to college?
“Why?” Students are arriving on college campuses without having eaten that day. Or even the day before.
Where? My office and others at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts (12 electoral votes). I have credible reports of college hunger in Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Florida (27 EVs), New York (31 EVs), California (55 EVs), Louisiana (9 EVs), New Jersey (15 EVs), and New Mexico (5 EVs).
Peanut butter? Let’s take a page, a few tablespoons from public health and acute hunger. Public health has long known of the astonishing effects from this simple dose of peanut butter, plumpy’nut, nourimandba.
My late discovery, the peanut butter solution, beyond that sink, arrived in the new book, To Repair the World, by the public health leader Paul Farmer. Listen: “One remedy for acute malnutrition is known as ready-to-use therapeutic food – RUTF for short. Colleagues from Medicins Sans Frontieres showed in Niger that a miraculous and tasty peanut paste could save the lives of most children with moderate and acute malnutrition.” Click here for more on RUTF. (Yes, sounds like, but not the same as, the AUMF that has been dogging you so, Mr. President.)
Acute malnutrition? In the U.S.? In colleges? Quibble over semantics as you wish, Mr. President. I’m talking about, say, the mother of two who showed up in my office late one afternoon this summer. She told me she and her children had had nothing to eat that day. Or the day before.
Exaggeration? Let’s compare these two statements, one from U.S. public higher education, one from global public health.
Listen: To President Madeline Pumariega of the Miami Dade College (total seven-campus enrollment 175,000) Wolfson campus: “When a student is hungry, he does not feel safe, and it is hard to help him synthesize class material. We have to meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.” That’s in a report: Clearing the Path to a Brighter Future: Addressing Barriers to College Access and Success, published this summer by Single Stop USA and the Association of Community College Trustees, authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katherine Broton, and Christin Gates of the University of Wisconsin.
Listen: To Medicins sans Frontieres, from the Farmer book: “An example: one of the lessons we’ve learned since the early days is that it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat patients who don’t get enough food to eat.” (Emphasis added.)
Mr. President, let’s connect some dots.
Wouldn’t the same go if we rephrased: “It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to educate students who don’t get enough to eat.”
Another dot: Don’t the same students eligible for federal free and reduced lunch through high school need lunch at college, too?
I mean even me, a sometime English professor and an obscure columnist, can see the overlap across Pell Grants, free and reduced K-12 lunch, and food stamps. Aren’t all these programs synonyms for poverty for many of the same people?
Any critics? “But if people are on food stamps, then they aren’t hungry, right?” A knuckleheaded Hill staffer, happy to tell me which prep school he had attended, said this to me last spring. Reply: Food stamps seldom last the whole month. Hummus can counter peanut butter allergies.
Listen: To the national anti-poverty NGO Single Stop USA. “So far Single Stop has sites on 17 community college campuses across the country. In 2012, Single Stop USA and its community college partners helped over 2,300 students nationwide access more than $6 million in food stamps. Roughly half of the people who received a public benefit through Single Stop in 2012 received food stamps. These numbers help illustrate how widespread the issue of hunger and poverty is on community college campuses.”
Listen: To Sadhana Dharmapuri, M.D., Medical College of Wisconsin, Adolescent Medicine: "Food insecurity and its complex effect on the individual, such as, increase in psychological stress, the physiological changes due to starvation, as well as, other financial hardship due to lack of food is not clearly defined for individuals pursuing a post-secondary education. Although there is data identifying the association of starvation with cognitive functioning, little is known how these changes affect college retention and completion rates, and whether lack of food and/or access to food, has a long term effect on potential learning, earning, and health outcomes.”
Listen: To the April 2011 Study Food Insecurity at CUNY (City University of New York): Results from a Survey of CUNY Undergraduate Students. The study invited a random sample of 6,883 students to participate, of whom 1,086 responded to USDA-validated survey questions.
39.2 percent of students sampled reported experiencing food insecurity during the previous 12 months. About twice as many (45.1 percent) reported that they worried they would not have enough money for food as reported they often or sometimes went hungry for lack of money (22.7 percent).
In addition, 19.1 percent reported that they knew of other students who had food or hunger problems.
Listen: To me? Bunker Hill Community College this week will have its 20th Mobile Market/Food Pantry in as many months. The Greater Boston Food Bank brings a truckload of food that nearly 200 students each time have collected for themselves and their families. Bunker Hill receives and distributes each weekday several cases of leftover but fresh bread from Panera. I shall persist and admit that I have again keep failed to persuade the American Association of Community Colleges to count how many of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges have services to address student hunger. The American Council on Education is helping raise these questions.
My proposal? Nourimandba, peanut butter, as 45 million peanut butter sandwiches that we, the people, provide each week. Estimate: Nine million times five days a week. Some distributed Saturdays and Sundays. As a start, I’m willing to assume that the Pell students would be grateful for some food. (Oh, have you seen the Weekend Backpack Program in Cambridge, Mass., where you and Secretary Duncan went to school? This sends a backpack of food home so that eligible public school students can eat during the weekends.)
Listen: To me? Another peanut butter, plumpy’nut story. I was closing up one evening last summer. We hadn’t been able to find a shelter for a homeless student. The student kept telephoning shelters. Bread and peanut butter I had. I made him five more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the weekend. I put them into a bag for him. What the heck? I put the jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and a plastic knife into the bag, too. "All this?" he asked me. "Sure. Just finish your education, run for president, and make sure no one in the U.S. is ever homeless again," I said.
"My dream is to have no homelessness for students in college or any young people," he said.
"What's your plan?"
"I'd have shelters by age. There should be shelters for middle school students, then for high school, then for college," he told me.
We just never know. I gave him paper, pens and a folder. "Come back Monday with your plan, and we'll send it to Senator Elizabeth Warren,” I said.
A student at the University of Guelph attempted to take his own life while 200 online strangers watched. Experts on campus mental health worry about the student -- and the potential impact of the footage.
When student debt surpassed credit card debt in 2010, exceeding the $1 trillion mark, higher education officials began focusing on how much college graduates owed after commencement — a whopping $26,600 on average, according to the latest statistics.
That figure is expected to rise about 5 percent annually unless institutions take such proactive measures as freezing tuition, streamlining curricula, consolidating departments, reorganizing colleges, and curtailing mission creep — all unpopular on the typical campus — meaning debt is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
That future is challenging for those saddled with lifelong debt before embarking on their careers.
It also effectively has changed how society views higher education, putting the emphasis on career over critical thinking, citizenship and lifelong learning, concepts that previously defined the importance of a college degree.
This is the hitherto undeclared harm that decades of loan-assisted academic expansion — curricular, technological, architectural and financial — has wrought on recent generations, necessitating that every discipline, especially the fine and liberal arts, emphasize placement.
Statistics speak for themselves:
Between 2000–11, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board rose 42 percent at public institutions and 31 percent at private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Project on Student Debt reports that 2011 graduates faced a tough job market, resulting in an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent with many more graduates "underemployed, working just part-time or in lower paying jobs that did not require a college education."
Graduates who default on loans likely will not create jobs as entrepreneurs or contribute to society a lifetime of meaningful work. Also, they are less likely to buy homes and otherwise enhance the economy because of the personal and professional setbacks accompanying poor credit histories.
Hallmarks of higher education — meaningful work and social contributions — are at risk if we in the academy fail to make placement a priority, for without adequate entry-level employment, students will not be able to jump-start careers.
Every department, from anthropology to zoology, can help defray burdensome loans by ensuring graduates are prepared for the workplace. Deans, provosts and presidents can require programs to place more emphasis on placement as part of the institution’s comprehensive assessment and strategic plans.
Here are some best practices from the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology:
1. Post a transparency page, displaying your placement rates. Persuasive arguments about the importance of your degree no longer suffice. Share facts, even if they are underwhelming. Over time, vow to improve them.
2. Create a career board, listing employment opportunities for your majors. Establish a relationship with companies that hire your graduates, publicize their openings, and direct your students to that site.
3. Profile prosperous alumni on your website, encouraging current students to contact them for career advice. The best advocates of your programs are ones who have earned a degree that played a critical role in their success.
4. Form an advisory council, including your most prestigious alumni. You may be surprised at the success of English, history and philosophy majors who developed critical thinking skills and enjoy fulfilling careers in government, industry and education.
5. Engage alumni and industry professionals in curriculum development, especially assessment, ensuring that your pedagogy is in keeping with career trends and cutting-edge methods.
6. Plan a jobs fair with panel discussions from recent graduates entering the work force. New employees can also inform existing students about networking, job shadowing, and portfolio preparation.
7. Recognize faculty with professional experience and contacts who provide career counseling in addition to curricular advising. Professors who prepare students for the workplace demonstrate the importance of a college degree by helping graduates network with alumni and potential employers.
8. Require an internship before graduation, helping students connect with future employers. An internship doesn’t have to relate to technical, scientific or professional fields; it can include nonprofits, fund-raising, human resources, museum curation — any number of creative or critical positions associated with the arts and humanities. By engaging your alumni, you’ll know the range of jobs and titles that they hold.
9. Publicize a list of internships that past students have enjoyed, showcasing the companies that provided such positions. Use this list to generate scholarship and internship support when fund-raising.
10. Underwrite professorial externships in the summer so that faculty can better provide career advice. Externships also help professors across disciplines update their courses with real-world information.
11. Work with your college’s career center, making students aware of your institution’s employment resources. Staff can help students with mundane tasks, such as writing a résumé or cover letter, or can even provide mock interviews so that students can see the type of presentation they make when job seeking.
12. Work with student organizations to host speakers that advise on employment matters. Often such organizations are affiliated with professional associations that have contacts with government, industry or education. They can help place your graduates.
Many of the above recommendations also apply to students earning master’s degrees in nonprofessional fields who may find themselves owing large sums without the means to repay them. Graduate directors might advise students lacking professional experience to consider adding an internship to their plans of study.
Make no mistake: A college degree, in and of itself, can still prepare learners who go on to create jobs through invention and innovation or who think critically enough to manage large, complex organizations. It also can be argued that a college degree has retained its value as an investment, as graduates typically earn twice as much over the course of their careers as counterparts with only a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Nevertheless, making college affordable again will require more than career planning. However, this is something that we can do without much, if any, additional cost that also pays dividends in alumni and community relations, enrollment and retention, engagement and advising, and fund-raising and assessment.
Those reasons alone are enough to focus on placement so graduates find entry-level positions to help defray debt.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, also chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.