The transition to college is a lot like the transition to middle school. There are enormous developmental changes happening within students—cognitive, social, emotional—at the same time that they are challenged with a dynamic new social and academic scene. As anyone who has been to a middle school can attest, ensuring students learn and grow in productive ways requires intentional support to meet their developmental needs.
Generally, colleges don’t do a great job of this. Gap year programs do.
Before I lay this out and offend anyone, here’s the disclaimer: Every college is different. Every gap year program is different. If the following really doesn’t apply to your institution or experience, please share in the comments. But, please also know that I’m not making universal assessments.
Colleges have been trying to improve their programming for college freshmen for decades. Recently, some colleges are going to even more extensive measures, both encouraging students to take gap years (Harvard) or offering funding for gap years (Princeton, UNC, Tufts University). I believe these moves will become even more common as higher ed seeks solutions to its value crisis.
We know a lot about the developmental characteristics of 17-19 year old students. They are:
The first four characteristics are directly related to the development of an adult identity. The fifth is a major cognitive development that dramatically expands the ability for critical thinking and personal reflection—both key tools for shaping one’s adult identity consciously.
What would an environment that both challenges and supports people this age look like? It would start with a group of peers that is large enough to include many personalities and perspectives, but not so big that anyone could get lost in the group. It would offer a wide range of engaging and meaningful learning opportunities each day, allowing exploration of personally and societally important topics. The structure of each day would provide full group, small group, and individual time for processing their experiences. Mentors would be part of the daily lives of the students. The mentors would be
significantly older, equipped with their perspective on what the students are facing developmentally and how to make it a productive precursor to what comes next in life. Their role as authority figures would be limited to ensuring student safety and well-being, creating as much opportunity for students to explore independent adulthood as possible. Finally, a curriculum would challenge students to examine their assumptions about themselves, the world, and their place within it. This examination would happen as an integrated part of exploring the personally and societally important topics.
While college freshmen do become part of a community of peers, it’s usually huge, sometimes measured in the tens of thousands. There is often little meaningful mentorship. Resident Advisors (RA’s) are generally too young to provide the necessary perspective, and professors are largely quarantined to the classroom. Introductory level coursework tends to focus heavily on theories and those who created them. The student experience is rarely connected to real world experiences. Ultimately, many students find themselves under-challenged and under-supported in doing the difficult developmental work of shaping an adult identity and expanding their meta-cognitive capacities.
I am drawn to gap year programming because educators can develop programs outside of the constraints of K-12 and higher ed. When we develop our programs at Thinking Beyond Borders, we start by mapping the needs of our students. We build an environment like the one described above with clear intention for how we would impact students. We aim to produce students with clear purpose for and ownership of their learning. We want them to have the skills and consciousness to know who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to impact the world. We want them to have a set of experiences and perspectives that will serve as pathways to engage deeply and critically in their higher ed and professional careers. We want them to be ready to passionately pursue expertise in a topic that matters to them and matters to the world.
Colleges don’t fail to meet these needs because they don’t care. They fail to meet these needs because their institutions were built long before the developmental needs of students this age were clearly understood. Building a learning environment to appropriately support students transitioning onto campus requires significant changes to the structure and business model of colleges. That’s not an easy thing to do. Until more colleges either reshape their freshman experience, gap years are the best option for students in the college transition seeking a learning environment that’s actually designed for them.