Ethical College Admissions: A Gap Year for Everyone?

Jim Jump considers the issues.

January 13, 2020
 
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Should service to the nation be a part of the transition from adolescence to adulthood for American young people? If so, should service be voluntary or compulsory? What’s the relationship between national service and going to college, and should colleges and universities require students to have a gap-year experience either before or during college?

Those questions arise from a commentary written last week for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The title of the piece is “Why Colleges Should Require a Gap Year,” and a loyal reader brought it to my attention and described it as an interesting and worthwhile approach.

Zimmerman’s essay references a $20 billion plan proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to increase opportunities for America’s youth to serve the nation. Buttigieg’s “A New Call for Service” proposal is a modern take on William James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” arguing that American society needs the shared sense of purpose historically found during wars. For Mayor Pete (easier to spell and say than "Buttigieg"), national service would provide that shared purpose as well as bring together young people from all backgrounds to overcome the division and polarization that threaten American society.

It’s a good idea, but is it an idea whose time has come or an idea whose time has gone? There are numerous countries throughout the world where compulsory national service, in most cases military, is part of growing up and being a citizen. Buttigieg’s website cites statistics showing that nearly three-quarters of American young people want to serve their country, a number that far outpaces the number of opportunities available. Applying to serve, whether through AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps or even the military, is like applying to a highly selective college, with admit rates in the 15 to 20 percent range.

Opportunities to serve may be declining. Zimmerman points out that service programs are on the chopping block in the Trump administration’s 2020 budget and that legislation calling for compulsory national service introduced in 2013 by Representative Charles Rangel didn’t even get a floor vote.

That’s where Zimmerman’s argument begins. According to his biography, he is a former Peace Corps volunteer, so he sees clearly the benefits of service for students and for the nation. His thesis is that higher education should take the lead in establishing a culture of national service by requiring that all students take a gap year either prior to or during college, such that “no students could graduate from college without serving their country.”

Zimmerman believes that his proposal would help not only students and the country, but higher education as an industry as well. Citing a 2018 Pew Research Center survey indicating that 61 percent of Americans believe that higher education is headed in the “wrong direction,” he argues that a focus on service as part of the college experience would provide a value proposition for going to college, the creation of better citizens determined to make American society better. As an educational historian, he points out that was the original purpose for American colleges.

There is no question that many students would benefit from a gap year before starting college. For too many students going to college is not a decision but a default position. They go because it’s an expectation from parents, schools and society, and because there is not a viable alternative unless you have the financial means. Zimmerman points out that a few universities now provide funding for students who wish to defer college for a year.

Would a gap year help students get more from the college experience? Those who start college or return when they are older value their education in a way that 19-year-olds may not. Many students are bored or burned out by the time they finish high school, and a gap year provides a change of pace and the educational equivalent of cleansing one’s palate before the next set of courses. There is also value in an additional year of prefrontal cortex development.

The argument for national service is that it benefits not only those doing it but society at large. Zimmerman lays out some of the needs that could be addressed by an army of college students taking time to serve, ranging from environmental cleanup to serving the homeless to volunteering at schools to helping elderly and disabled citizens. But more than meeting needs, national service could become an American rite of passage, an avenue for the next generation of citizens from all backgrounds to come together in a common experience similar to what serving in the armed forces used to be (military service would still be a service option).

The devil, of course, is in the details. It is one thing to make a case for the value of a gap service year and another to make a case for requiring a gap year. Isn’t service that is voluntary more meaningful than service done to fulfill a graduation requirement, which in turn is more meaningful than service that is court-mandated? The consequentialists among us might argue that concern for meaning is meaningless, that the value lies in the service no matter why it is done.

Zimmerman proposes two major paths that colleges might choose to ensure greater student commitment to service. One is making a year of service a graduation requirement. That is not revolutionary at a time when experiential learning is more in vogue than ever before. Graduation requirements should reflect more than a collection of hours and courses, but rather the things an institution believes students should know or experience as part of college. The graduation requirement approach runs the risk of making college longer and more expensive unless the year of service takes the place of current course requirements.

The other path involves the admissions process, giving preference to applicants who commit to spend a year in service. That proposal follows in the footsteps of the "Turning the Tide" initiative, which seeks to make the college admissions process a vehicle for helping students value caring for others and the common good. The first "Turning the Tide" report recommended that colleges focus on those goals through having students reflect on those values through application essay questions. If we’re serious about those goals, making service an admissions “plus factor” would seem to be a more powerful. Would students do more national service if Harvard and Princeton Universities gave admissions preference comparable to applying early or playing a sport?

It’s an interesting idea, but are there unanticipated consequences? My reader wonders whether adopting this idea will result in a new category of poaching by institutions concerned with serving themselves. Will making service an admissions factor create a new cottage industry of service gap-year consultants, and would that benefit the economy?

For 50 years going to the Gap has been part of the teenage experience for American youth. Might going to the gap year be the next big thing?

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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