Students should take a gap year before college

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Not to sound bitter, but I am too old to be a college student.

At 26, I am still a student at SDSU, chugging along, trying to finish that bachelor’s degree. I am what they call the eternal senior – I will probably never graduate, just continue taking classes part time until the school issues me some kind of participation trophy or a diploma covered in “good effort” stickers.

Not to sound bitter, but I am too old to be a college student.

At 26, I am still a student at SDSU, chugging along, trying to finish that bachelor’s degree. I am what they call the eternal senior – I will probably never graduate, just continue taking classes part time until the school issues me some kind of participation trophy or a diploma covered in “good effort” stickers.

Finishing is not the end goal for me. I already have a job that I love in a career I am excited about. I have only ever taken one academic journalism class in my entire life and everything I know about this job, I learned from an actual newsroom.

On this, the first week of school, as I was walking past the new student residence building going up on the west side of campus, I overheard a gaggle of freshman describing their semester plans.

“I’m going to take it easy on Monday and Tuesday,” I heard one boy say, “but the other five days, I’m going all out.”

For those who may not understand the assertion, this eager beaver plans to party five days a week.

Now, of course, reality is going to tamper some of that enthusiasm. Although it should not be too hard to find a party to attend every night at SDSU, most freshmen will learn that the party life does not blend well with 8 a.m. classes. That is the difference between a freshman and a sophomore, after all – the latter knows to keep the wee hours of their morning reserved for sleeping and printing last-minute homework.

We can also safely assume that some of that is just big talk, one nervous freshman desperately trying to show off in front of his new friends.

Now, we could make this freshman’s mid-morning proclamation a critique of college party life, excessive drinking or poor judgment in general, but plenty of ink has already been spilled on those topics and nothing has changed. What can be said? Kids like to have fun.

A statement could also be made about lack of appreciation for learning opportunities, privilege, the failure of higher education system to prepare students for the real world and several dozen other topics, but again, all that has already been said to no effect.

College is not going to change, but maybe we can change the way we send our kids to college.

I recommend that we reconsider the gap year, or at least consider letting kids go to community college for a few years before transferring.

To accept this idea, we need to dispense with the notion that the college experience is somehow priceless. Our nation has been sold a scam that our youth will “find themselves” at college, that it will be the best days of their lives and that they will grow into responsible adults.

Only responsibility produces responsible adults, and most college students are not given very much of that.

Compare for a moment students who work their way through community college to those who are sent straight to four-year university campuses.

Community college students typically work one or two part time jobs. If they are not still living at home, they are paying their own rent somewhere.

Our poor 18-year-old freshman who plans to “go all out” for five-sevenths of his week has no idea how expensive his drinking habit could be, let alone his tuition – how could he? He probably has no practical concept of money to operate in which tells him how much work per hour he has to put in to earn minimum wage. If he does not pay monthly expenses, like his own phone bill, car insurance or rent, then he also does not have a working idea of how much of his earned money will be lost on the basic costs of living.

Unfortunately, it will catch up to him – too late to be useful, most likely – probably as he is staring down his student loans while working a blue collar job he could have gotten without the degree.

The solution is simple: let him work the blue collar job before college.

Maybe after a year or two, he will even reconsider if he wants to pursue university at all.

Before you start shaking your heads, consider that only 27 percent of students will find jobs related to their major, according to the Washington Post.

When are we going to dispel the idea that a college degree prepares our young people for the workforce? What part our freshman’s plan to ruin his liver over the course of the next four years intimates a successful transition into the professional world?

Forbes reported in 2016 that employers have found recent graduates lacking in leadership, communication, critical thinking and team-working skills. Those are skills not well fostered in a classroom.

Outstanding student loan debt has nearly tripled in the last decade and a study by MagnifyMoney of more than 3,000 students found that nearly 40 percent would consider dropping out of school to avoid more debt.

What if our kids knew they had a choice? What if they had work experience – even a little – to give them a framework for making the financial decision to go to college? If they consent and decide it is worth their time and resources, great! But it should be informed consent, not simply a decision already made for them by teachers, parents and a society that says cannot be a success in this country without a degree.

Furthermore, a little real-world experience is likely to change the way students approach higher education in general.

Spending time in the workforce, whether that is customer service, or the restaurant industry, or the family business, or the military, teaches us how to treat difficult coworkers and bosses with respect, how to be the bigger person, how to put in your best effort and take the consequences when you slip below the standard – consequences that are bigger than a slightly lower GPA.

They will learn that buying a $4 cup of coffee every day can be a budget buster and not as important as putting gas in your car or paying your utility bill.

They will learn that, through the fault of no one, the world does not operate fairly and that there is little room to complain.

Most importantly, they learn to see themselves as contributing facets of their families and communities.

Sometimes, the isolation from the rest of the world on a college campus makes that mindset difficult to grasp for those who spend four years within the same walls.

But kids who live and work at home past their high school days tend to find this out. Granted, living at home will only turn us into adults if the adults in our lives start doling out responsibility and expectations of mature behavior. And, in my experience, that is what happens.

Kids who stay at home and work hard so they can make their own car payments or save up for their tuition, they grow up.

This is not a pretty hypothetical for me. For me and many of my friends, this is the story of our life, our education. We struggled to earn a place at the university – and I did not have it half so hard as some of them.

And even though working my way through college has been extremely trying (I have consistently worked two or three jobs at a time since I began school), I am happy to say that when I do finally graduate – and I am assuming I will get a real diploma and not just a participation sticker – I will walk away without a single student loan or a penny of debt. More importantly, I will have received an education that many of my younger peers have not even begun.

I see young people at SDSU and I wonder how different their college experience would be if they had stayed home for a few years after high school.

Hopefully, when they leave, they will be prepared for the workforce, though statistics suggest otherwise. But the growing up process for them will be just beginning. Adjusting to the world of adult responsibility – and the perspective that comes with bills, car breakdowns, groceries, taxes and the joy of taking care of yourself and others – will take time, and they will be years behind their peers who took a longer route through high education.

And if our society aims to cultivate adults, not just kids with degrees, maybe we need to rethink our approach to sending our teenagers away to school.


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