Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Intriguing Idea, But There's a Gap in His Logic

Yahoo! finance columnist Charles Wheelan has some unusual advice for recent graduates:
'm going to step back from economics for a moment and write about teaching economics to both undergraduates and graduate students. Based on that experience, I have some advice for talented high school students: Don't go to college.

And advice for talented college graduates: Don't get a job.
Huh? Is he out of his mind?

OK, I'll let him continue for a moment:
Of course there is a caveat. You should do both of them eventually, just not right away. Take a year off, either after high school or after college.

Use that year to do something interesting that you'll likely never be able to do again: write a book, hike the Appalachian Trail, live with your grandparents, trek in Katmandu, volunteer at a health clinic in India, or serve your country in the military.

Just do something that will make you a more complete person. I suspect that it'll also make you appreciate your education more (and, ironically, make you more attractive when you do apply for college or enter the job market).
So he's suggesting a "gap year" like many European students take. This might be a good idea for some people, but definitely not for all. But I'll get to that in a minute. How does he propose that this will work? Is he saying that the kids should leach off Mom and Dad for one more year? Not at all:
I have two rules. First, you have to support yourself. If you're writing that novel, then you need to be waiting tables when you're not at the keyboard. If you're traveling across India, then you've got to earn the money before you go. This isn't about Mom and Dad funding leisure travel. The time will only be meaningful if you have to work for it, literally.

And second, this experience can't be one of those uber-competitive kinds of programs that are designed as a means to get you somewhere else -- like NASA physics camp or 14 hours a day of intensive gymnastics.
And he goes on for a while, talking about how "the world is your classroom" and the need to be street-smart as well as book-smart and so on.

This is all well and good. But is it practical? I can see a few problems with this, and many of the 100+ commenters to this story can as well. Here are the main drawbacks:
  • This might not be a great idea for recent high school graduates, because many of them lack the maturity and focus to get the most out of such a trip. It would be tempting to spend the whole year as one giant party (especially in Europe, where the drinking age is lower).

  • Also, most recent high school graduates spend the time right before college working and making enough money to either not have to work during college or at least work a lot less, so as to minimize its interference with studies. Taking a gap year might well send someone off to their first semester dead broke, which is almost never a good idea.

  • Something else that occurred to me is that there's no telling as to whether or not any scholarships earned before graduation would still be honored a year later if the student chose not to start right away.

  • There's also a big problem with taking that gap year right after college. Anyone who has student loans will find their first payment due shortly after graduation. That timeline will not be delayed because you decided to bum around Europe for a year. If that trip is supposed to be financed without help from Mom and Dad, how is one supposed to pay for that and the student loan bills without a job (or even with the "waiting tables while you're writing your novel" job that Wheelan suggests.
So far, most of the reasons not to do something like this are financial in nature. But there's one I haven't touched upon yet, and yes, it's the one that's closest to my heart: People who are planning on majoring in some sort of specialized skill they already possess would be quite unlikely to do this successfully.

Imagine a music major (not hard for me to do, of course) trying to take a gap year before college. That would likely involve being unable to practice for an entire year (good luck hauling that cello to the jungles of Nepal or cramming your tuba in your backpack as you bicycle between youth hostels in Europe). I can't even begin to imagine starting school a year later being that far behind. And doing the gap year after college probably wouldn't work, either; by the time a musician graduates, he or she probably is a professional, having already practiced the craft on a regular basis (something other professions--think doctors, lawyers, etc.--don't get to do yet) and built up a network of professional contacts. It would be hard to just walk away from all that for a year.

And while I use musicians as my example, this really applies to anyone in a pre-acquired specialty skill area: Artists, actors, athletes, and so on. It would be hard to let your "chops" atrophy for any length of time right before college, and, after graduation, you're already a part of your profession.

But the good thing about the artistic types is that, because of your profession, it may not be too late to make that European trip. My opportunity came well after college (once I was teaching college, as a matter of fact), when our program got invited to the prestigious Montreux festival in Switzerland. Sure, I had wanted to go to Europe for a long time, but I always kind of had a feeling that music would get me there, and it well as to places like Vermont, Colorado and Washington state. If I'd bummed around for a year instead of working hard, I might not have ever had the opportunity to go later, and it was more meaningful when I got there by doing what I was meant to do.

So while I think that, in a perfect world, it would be a great experience to do something like this, it's not realistic for too many people, unless they start saving for it in middle school or something. I agree with the commenters who say that Wheelan has a narrow worldview if he thinks the vast majority of people could actually do this (though I won't go as far as to brand him an "elitist" as some of them did), and I also come down on the side of those who say that you don't have to leave America to "live among the poor" if that's your choice; there's a lot of this country to see, and quite a bit of it is very different from where any given person grew up.

Entertaining comment thread of the day: If you could do a gap year, where would you go?

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