Filling in the Gap in Higher Education

The daughter of a family friend is graduating high school this year. Now, at the end of an extraordinarily successful high school career, her voice deepens with cynicism: “I just want to get it over with so I can start working to pay it off.” This defeatism is unlike what I remember feeling as a graduating senior. I remember the excitement and anticipation the opportunity that college promised. Talking with her, I wonder when the promise of higher education began overshadowing the burden of getting there.

For too many, there is something overwhelming and unfulfilling about this transition, and perhaps with good reason: research reveals that college students report feeling unprepared; they are also taking longer to graduate.

A disconnect exists between the “high school” experience, one that is strongly influenced by the competitive college process, and what students need for success in college itself. In plain terms, it begs us to ask: What is the gap in young people’s education? And more importantly, How can we fill it?

The gap is not in academics, but the skills young adults need to take advantage of them. The newest First Year College Experience Survey, conducted by Harris Poll, reports that 60% of students expressed that they wished they were more emotionally prepared for college. Many of these students have lower GPAs, consume more drugs and alcohol, and rate their college experience as “terrible/poor.” In a recent article in The Atlantic, Laura Jimenez, an expert in this area, notes an important “difference between being college-eligible and college-ready. We know a ton about what it takes for kids to be college eligible … what [those metrics] can’t tell you is if your class is at eight in the morning, are you going to be able to get up and get to class? Are you going to seek help when you need it? That’s where the social-and-emotional learning conversation is starting to take off – there are plenty of kids who are eligible but not ready.”

During college, students are not guaranteed to develop these essential skills for success either. Rebecca Chopp, the Chancellor of the University of Denver, claims that colleges are not graduating students with the characteristics sought by most employers—the ability to effectively communicate, work in a team, and proactively addresses conflict. Colleges recognize this need and are beginning to emphasize innovation, collaboration, and creativity, but this change is not happening quickly and is rarely the primary focus of a college education.

Since high schools are not doing enough to prepare graduates for more than the academic challenges of college, students need other avenues to fill this gap. That is why gap years are growing so rapidly. During a gap year, students can augment the academic preparation of high school by developing their social and emotional intelligence, independence, and accountability.

This is what we see during the HMI Gap. It is a powerful venue for students to confront challenges, adversity, and doubt. Facing a fear of heights on a rock climb is a rich opportunity to develop the courage, resilience, and self-confidence to succeed in life. Living and traveling in a small community demands good communication, teamwork, and the ability to work through conflict. If a student misses that 8 am class in college, they are the only person affected, but if they choose to sleep in one morning on HMI Gap, they risk forcing the group to hike into the night or hindering the team’s progress on a multi-day trail project.

For perhaps the first time, the HMI Gap students see a sense of authenticity in their learning. The transition to college and adulthood is about greater independence and freedom. It is also about being ready to confront the world on more immediate, uncontrolled terms. By taking the time to focus on the personal and social elements of this transition, students are more likely to enter college with the skills, resilience, and sense of purpose to thrive.

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