Kid Made It Into Every College! Is It Time For A Gap Year?

img_3766Things have changed since I went to college. Every parent says so. Back in the day, you took an ACT or SAT once, maybe twice, and applied to college – usually about three, and most within your own state.

What We Parents Do Differently Now
Where we live, things are certainly different now. Parents want the kids to have the best of everything, and help them to get there. We hire tutors to get the best standardized test scores (it works; college financial aid packages look at those numbers and GPA to determine merit aid). This pushes young people to be their best selves, which is great. And for some, it also gives rise to problematic emotions, driving up anxiety, insecurity and depression. Is it worth it? It depends on how these young people gauge their own self-satisfaction and self-worth.

The Value Of Education
As I was growing up, the name of the school you went to possibly had a lot of bearing on how financially successful a graduate was. "Better" schools attracted "better" students, and the "better" schools had a network that would help people get hired. It seemed to make sense.

I paid my own way through college and attended a regional public state university. One that I felt could afford to pay for. I loved my time there. I eventually ended up working for a Fortune 500 company in marketing after a couple of job changes, advancing in title and pay each time, but when I was just starting out, I asked three large companies that I was applying to what my chances were for getting hired. I was told that because I attended a "lesser" university, my resume would go to the bottom of the stack. Even though I had served a paid marketing internship at a leading corporation in downtown Chicago. That they had to have some measure of my abilities, and that if I was a capable student (and thus person), I would have attended a better institution. Ouch.

However, as I look at data now, I see reports of the "average" salary students make for their first jobs from all the schools my daughter applied to. There is negligible difference in this average pay. All make around $50K to start, and more expensive schools didn not show, on average, better pay in the future, either.

According to this MoneyCrashers article, "Does It Matter Where You Go To College?" the school you attend does NOT matter for most jobs or even getting into graduate school. What DOES matter is how well you perform at school and how well you advocate for yourself with professors to make connections for research and real-world experience while you are a student. There are scores of articles to support this.

What Motivates A Young Person In College
I have a kid who hasn't made any seriously bad mistakes in high school. Her grades are quite good at one of the leading public high schools in this country. Her teachers and school staff support her. Probably typical for the age (and I hate to say it, but also her gender), she is insecure and compares herself a lot to others. She has not been influenced to do anything problematic outside of her core values, but she also is highly impressionable.

To that end, we as parents feel that the right emotional environment at a college or university will be key to our child's success as she grows and develops into an independent young adult.

There are some admitted college student events coming up in the next few weeks. While nothing can replace actually living at school with roommates and floor mates and attending classes, many parents tell me that their kid got a "vibe" from the admitted student events, and that's when they felt they fit in.

A true sense of belonging in an environment that she feels supports her is going to be the winning school for our child – one in which we hope she develops the confidence that will encourage the very strong core of the person she is.

Financial considerations are critically important, but so is the success of your child emotionally, and in this day and age, this seems more critical than ever.

Still, at times I wonder if her choice of college is going to based on the kinds of schools she sees her high school classmates committing to. What is right for one person is not necesarily right for all, and I hope she is making a decision that is true to herself, not a comparison to others.

Should she take more time to reflect on her life and her interests, outside of the "bubble"of high school life?

The Dreaded "Gap Year" – Is It A Bad Idea?
If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have said "NO WAY" to a gap year for my kid.

Why? I had visions of my student feeling sad about not being in college like all of her other friends. I was worried that she would "flounder" and lose motivation to go to away to college and complete her degree.

Upon looking into, I'm find now that there are gap year programs that parents actually pay for!

Some are offered by independent organizations, and some are actually offered by universities.

Some of the country's leading universities are actually PROMOTING that students take a gap year. I'm talking Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Yeah. And gap years are actually very common in the UK, with some 20 percent of students doing so.

Why? Research shows that the majority of students who take a gap year are more focused at college and perform better academically. They often bring real-world experience from a meaningful job or consistent volunteering in a field they're interested in to their college career, and are more motivated students.

This article from the Washington Post explores the advantages. "Why Harvard Encourages Students To Take A Gap Year." The article explores what Malia Obama did during her gap year. Not all gap years look the same, but to us as parents, it's worth pondering.

My husband and I are not interested in paying for a gap year program. With some creativity, we are considering gap year "curriculm" that we created, should our daughter choose a gap year:

  • Working for at least 30 hours per week, preferably a job that relates to her career interests (psychology, children, special education)
  • Shadowing professionals in a variety of health careers. She has been given fascinating offers for job shadowing by extremely talented, leading professionals in their given fields.
  • Commting to a financial savings plan that we help her manage and set goals for savings
  • Volunteering regularly – preferably weekly – to a program of her choice, especially if it relates to her career interests
  • Taking some college coursework locally*
  • Traveling internationally language immersion travel (she is in advanced Spanish)*
  • Traveling to visit family around the country, and help where needed:
  • Nannying for relatives while they adjust to a move with their four young children – and writing about the experience – how do the children interact? What are their emotions? Does birth order play a role?
  • Visiting an aunt whose husband has early onset Alzheimer's disease. How has he changed? What is his cognitive ability now v. earlier in the diagnosis? How is her caregiver aunt faring emotionally?
  • Visiting cousins in other states, and perhaps joining them in any volunteer activities they partake in, and writing about the experience
  • Taking mission trips through church or other organizations

*If she commits to a university and accepts their one-year deferral program, those schools that offer the program have a caveat; the student MAY NOT enroll in any college courses, nor take a study abroad program for academic credit prior to beginning studies where they have committed to the school for a deferral. The deferall includes a four-year fixed price for tuition, fees as well as room and board, and all merit scholarships would stay intact for all four years. Not every university offers this.

Emotional Resilience And Today's College Student
Everywhere I look, I read articles that say that mental health problems are on the rise for college students. I work in the Counseling and Advising office of our local community college, and people who have been counseling college students for a decade or more are seeing more and more young people who feel overwhelmed and are depressed.

I've read that there is a 50 percent increase in the number of students seeking mental health counseling for severe emotional needs like anxiety and depression – bad enough to interfere with their academic success.

There is a rise in college suicides – with as much as 1 to 3 percent of students attempting or succeeding in suicide.

And I've read repeatedly that 1 in 3 students are so emotionally overwhelmed at college that they come home from school. The reasons? All of the above. They are homesick, miss their parents/family, and feel they can't make it on their own, struggle to make friends and fit in, and have other feelings of being overwhelmed.

What gives???

Back in the 1980s when I was in college, the world was my oyster and I loved it. There was so much pride I felt in going to college, and nothing was going to stand in my way of getting a degree.

I had a boyfriend at home, whom I'm pretty sure I loved a lot more than he loved me (wasn't the man I'm married to, by the way!) but even that would not stop me from fulfilling my dream. It never even occurred to me.

I was paired with a wonderful roommate who was my only roommate all through college, and I found a tribe through my major very quickly.

Life had its challenges then, but I survived emotionally, actually losing my father to cancer in my final semesters of college.

And yet, I held strong emotionally.

Am I especially strong? Nope. I'll be the first to admit I'm not.

So is it the current culture of our world that contributes to the feelings of despair so many of our young people feel? Why is this the case? There are scores of people who theorize we've done too much for our kids, they don't know how to structure their lives, etc. I don't know if this is true. I can only report the facts as I read them. I have two children with two completely opposite personalities, and I think they were just wired very differently from each other. They get along very well and love each other, and as parents we're especially proud of that bond.

Every kid is different, and what they need or want is different. I would never tell any other parent how to do things with their kid, since every kid is a unique individual.

I have my hopes and dreams for both of my kids, and admit that an away college experience is on of them. I pray it works out well for both.

To be sure, I will miss my daughter greatly when she goes to college – whenever that happens. But I'm much rather have a happy kid living away from me and not missing me too much than a depressed, dejected person not succeeding at college or living at home with me.

A Child's Journey Is Not Their Parent's Journey
While it's so easy to live your life through your child, I keep reminding myself that life is a series of experiences. Ones we hope to grow and learn from.

While today's 18-year-old may be emotionally much more like a 14-year-old (even if they are brilliant and worldly), their lives really are THEIR journeys, and we have to make it clear to them that this is so.

We had heard from many parents to consider schools outside of the state, since it's not a guarantee that Illinois universities offer the best options. She applied to a mix of safety, reach and stretch schools, public and private, in-state and out-of-state, near and far, very inexpensive and more expensive. While it's a lot of choices, when our child looks back on it, she will see that we allowed her to gauge her choice for college based on all of these factors. We didn't hold back her choices.

We are committed to helping our child financially and emotionally for college, but in the end, having clearly explained that this is her deal. It's her place to succeed, her place to manage her college debt, etc.

It's a big step in growing up. I also have to give her credit to make her own choices.

Raising Teens Right is the toughest job I've ever had. There is no boss to tell me whether I'm on track or not. Only a protégé whose adult life is about to begin.

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