Give high school grads a “Gap Year”

At college and university campuses across Arkansas and the nation, students are back in class and a whole new generation of freshmen is venturing forth—a multitude of them in pursuit of utter economic folly.

That’s not a new official major, but a de facto designation for droves of students who wind up with a partial degree (possibly the most worthless of all educational endeavors).

Consider these higher education actualities:

Arkansas adults with college degrees? We’re next to last in census data, with fewer than one in five.

Arkansas college graduation rates? Thank God for Idaho and Alaska.

Arkansas college remediation rates for first-time students? Higher-ed officials cheer that it’s a little less than half.

Arkansas Lottery Scholarships? The incredible shrinking benefit: this year’s freshmen receive 60 percent less than originally implemented (from $5,000 a year to $2,000), and 40 percent of recipients lose their scholarships in the first year.

Arkansas college debt? Only seven states incur higher per-student loans than our $4,907 annual average.

Student-loan default rate? After a couple of embarrassing years as No. 1 in the nation, we’ve improved to being merely a top-five leader.


Utter economic folly may be an understatement; insanity might be a better description of the process in which far too many high school graduates mindlessly assume the high cost burden of college whether or not they are prepared, whether or not they can afford it, and whether or not they have made any concrete career decisions.

Nowhere else in civilized economic society are 18-year-olds encouraged to so casually sign on to a $20,000-plus annual financial obligation in which four out of five consistently fail.

Nobody would encourage a high school senior to invest the equivalent cost of a college education in a new startup business without a business plan that examined financial cost and return, outlined expertise and skill-set requirements, defined the competitive market and demonstrated performance-level projections necessary for success.

If college were truly an “investment,” as per the oft-sung refrain from the higher-ed establishment, that kind of careful analysis would be a prerequisite prior to admission.

Instead, a “college education” is imprecisely deemed to now be part of the American Dream.

Or nightmare, for the 60-something percent of Arkansas collegians who will never complete a degree program and may well find themselves neither educated nor readily employable, but heavily indebted.

If Arkansas is to significantly improve its higher-ed statistics, and the lives and prospects of its high school graduates, how about a totally unconventional idea:

Let’s become the first state in the union to officially sanction and adopt a “Gap Year Strategy,” and reward high school seniors who elect to wait a year before going to college.

A “Gap Year” traditionally refers to programs in which affluent high school seniors take a year off to travel abroad or serve in a volunteer organization.

Why not make it a universal option for Arkansas high school graduates?

Right now, those who don’t go from spring diploma to fall enrollment forfeit college scholarship opportunities.

Let Gap Year students retain all financial-aid rights for that year. In fact, boost their lottery scholarship by $1,000 if they return from their Gap Year with a W2.

Roughly half of college-bound high school seniors aren’t sure about what to major in, or change their major at least once.

A Gap Year would give seniors time to better figure out which field or industry suits them, and let them get a sample of real-world employment and its eye-opening insights (working in something is often very different from majoring in it).

Coursework at the secondary level is more demanding, and yet many college freshmen face it from a less disciplined environment. In high school, parents may have enforced study rules, helped with homework and generally prodded seniors to get better grades.

A Gap Year would allow students to acquire better practical habits, such as getting up and getting to work on time, as well as the focus and passion necessary for college-level achievement—without also trying to adjust to being on their own for the first time.Naysayers will point to current data that show higher remediation rates for first-time freshmen who don’t go to college straight from high school. But that measures a situation in which the gap and return to college is unplanned and longer.

Students in existing Gap Year programs need less remediation than average, not more.

As Arkansas students chose to take advantage of the Gap Year opportunity, it would free up lottery scholarship funds so the amount could be restored for the remaining freshmen—and help prevent the current mismatched cart-and-horse situation, where many high school seniors borrow money for college first, and determine college isn’t for them second.

College is a great opportunity. But only for those who finish.

A Gap Year would give all high school seniors an option they don’t have now, which is freedom from facing a hasty decision that puts tens of thousands of dollars at risk.

What a great graduation gift for the class of 2014!


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