Curiosity Could Grow With Gap Year Popularity

Everyone agrees that high schoolers need more and better choices after graduation. For any number of reasons, not every graduate wants to work a summer job and then move into a dorm room at a four-year university.

The Oregon legislature has made several attempts to build the state’s network of community colleges as an in-between step for graduates. President Trump and Congressional Democrats are both promising to increase apprenticeship training opportunities for those who don’t see the value of more schooling.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have offered the boldest stroke yet. Beginning in 2020, Emanuel has proposed that Chicago School District deny graduates a diploma if they don’t have either an acceptance letter (from a college or the military) or a job offer. Every student would then realize that high school is no longer an end point, but a launch pad.

Emanuel’s plan does offer an in-between alternative that could reshape higher education more than anything else. Diplomas would be given to students accepted into a so-called “Gap Year” program. It certainly didn’t hurt that Emanuel’s former boss endorsed the concept when his elder daughter chose to delay her Harvard education for a year.

Led by Malia Obama’s example, Gap Year programs may see their biggest renaissance since, well, the Renaissance. Young elites in the 1700s regularly took a year of travel and adventure before continuing their education or beginning their career. It was called the Grand Tour, and it’s where our modern concept of tourism began.

I don’t know if we’ll soon see the Year of the Gap, or the Gap of the Year, or the Year of the Gap Year. But if Emanuel’s plan succeeds in Chicago, Gap Year programs may quickly proliferate.

Spend an hour in the Safeway near campus on a Friday evening and you’ll see that giving students plenty of choices doesn’t necessarily give them the skill to choose between them. In fact, it’s often the reverse. Too many choices with too little guidance leave too many young people feeling unmoored and incapable. Those feelings and fears can become difficult to overcome.

Two former deans from the University of Oregon have told me essentially the same thing. One remarked that Thirsty Thursday crowds on 13th Avenue are mostly packed with Liberal Arts majors. Another told me that the university’s professional programs regularly attract the most serious students.

Some young people finish high school knowing what they want to do next. They’re ready to be trained — whether it’s tuning up Toyotas, writing computer code, or reading actuary tables. We’re equipping the self-directed students just fine.

Those not being well served are the ones who know only what they don’t want to do next. They don’t want to decide about their future and they definitely don’t want to get a job. They may have succeeded at everything in high school, but feel they’ve earned a break for the summer.

A Gap Year can delay that moment of truth, giving graduates a long, deep breath before plunging into the rigor and expense of a college education.

Imagine the music student who loves a variety of instruments, but wonders about composing or directing. Now imagine that student taking a Gap Year at The Shedd Institute, surveying a range of possibilities before settling on a career or education path.

Or imagine a student who loves numbers, but isn’t sure where those skills can be used most successfully. A Gap Year program could give that student a wide range of short-term internships. Later career choices would then be grounded in some real-world experiences.

Truth be told, a university campus is not always the best place for curiosity to flourish. When maintaining a certain grade point average is essential, there’s no room to explore subjects that don’t fit the plan.

We must distinguish between training and education. Training narrows the decisions ahead. Education broadens those possibilities as widely as a student can bear. As higher education becomes more directed and efficient, its focus shifts from education to training.

Gap Year programs could support curiosity over certitude, assisting many young people as they explore their unique path into adulthood.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.