Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Readers’ Comments: “The Gift of a Gap Year”

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Many readers responded to my column, “The Gift of a Gap Year”.

For example, an Ivy League college administrator writes: “It’s time for the 40- and 50-year-olds (and grandparents) who have grown up with the old paradigms to look at better ways to make sure their child is prepared for college. We really do need to look at the entire picture of the child and not just academic competence. Of the 168 hours of a student’s weekly life, 12 to 15 hours of that week are in the classroom (provided they don’t cut, or class gets cancelled.) That’s a lot of ‘other’ time for an age group whose decision-making functions of the brain are not fully developed.”

This raises an important point about a typical young college student’s decision-making capabilities. As pointed out by the Association for Psychological Science, developmentally, adolescence is the most reckless behavior of various age groups. However, as the seminal work of Dr. Jeffrey Arnett and other academic organizations indicate, “ . . . the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act . . . is still changing and maturing well into adulthood [including the stage called emerging adulthood, between 18 and 25 years] . . . and the socio-emotional system can drive behavior that is unpredictable, erratic, and risky.”

This same reader cites important research indicating that today’s college students’ “other” time can have serious, potentially negative impacts: “In 1961 the average full-time college student spent 24 hours per week studying outside of the classroom. By 1981 that number had dropped to 20 hours, and in 2003 the average student spent only 14 hours per week studying outside of the classroom.”

A logical question to ask is: so how are typical college students using their non-classroom and non-study time on a weekly basis? Research at the University of California “ . . . found that students spend . . . 14 hours consuming entertainment, 12 hours hanging out with friends, 11 hours using computers for fun, 6.5 hour sleeping (daily), and 6 hours exercising, as well as various other, less time-consuming activities, such as, commuting, volunteering, and working for pay.”

Additional research indicates that college students average 3.5 hours a day on the Internet. This finding is worrisome: for every hour of media exposure, GPA was reduced between 0.05 and 0.07 points. On the upside, this same research points out that time on the Internet can be academically useful when it is used appropriately in the classroom.

A high school guidance counselor writes: “You may be interested to know that even though I am a great believer in the value of a gap year for some high school seniors heading to college, I was told by my administration not to discuss a gap year as a viable option with students and their parents. My administration wants as many kids as possible going to college to keep its percentage of college-bound kids high. Deferrals don’t cut it, even though the best colleges and universities in the country honor them.” (Deferrals are defined as the process whereby a high school senior who has been accepted at a college or university can take a gap year before starting college, with no penalty. See http://www.americangap.org/fav-colleges.php for a list of deferral policies at major colleges and universities.)

My own follow-up research supports this guidance counselor’s point that deferrals are not only offered by many colleges and universities, many encourage them. For example: “Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way . . . For nearly forty years, Harvard has recommended this option, indeed proposing it in the letter of admission. Normally a total of about fifty to seventy students [approximately 3 to 4 percent of the incoming class] defer college until the next year.” It is also worth noting that Harvard posts a friendly and supportive website for its gap year students.

A British reader suggests that a gap year is more common in the UK than it is in the US. Sure enough, my research confirmed this: “The concept of a gap year originated in the UK in the 1960’s and has long been considered to be a rite of passage . . . statistics show that over 5% of accepted university applicants in the UK deferred admission for one year in 2012. Statistics in the USA pale in comparison, where an estimated 1.2% of first-time college freshmen deferred admission in 2011 to take a gap year,” according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

Why this discrepancy? “American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness,” says writer Lilit Marcus. “We’re a country permanently in hyperdrive.”

A parent writes: “Your column on a gap year really hit home. Our bright, but immature, son was accepted at an Ivy League college, the same one my husband attended. My son made one stupid and reckless decision after another and flunked out his first semester. The dean suggested our son do a gap year – get a job, live at home, and take a course or two at our local community college. The dean said he’d hold a spot for our son, depending on how his gap year went. My argumentative husband finally wore the dean down, and our son stayed for another semester. He flunked out. Again. Our son is slowly maturing, but I have no doubt that our son was the perfect candidate for a gap year, and would have saved himself from the shame and humiliation he is still dealing with. Also, we would have saved a lot of money.”

A final comment from a grandfather: “Now that I know about a gap year, I am open to it for our grandchildren, IF there was a written contract about how a gap year would be utilized, including, clear objectives, goals, and expectations. I can see that a gap year can be the right option for some kids.”

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

Karen L. Rancourt has a new book,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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