I recently ran across Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 fellowship, which provides $100,000 for students who have great ideas and are willing to drop out of college to pursue them. Thiel thinks college is largely useless and, as a result, likes to quote the Mark Twain saying, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
That may be a little extreme. College was expensive for me, but far from a waste of time. Still, if I could play dictator for a day, I would change one thing about it: When people attend. Instead of going straight from high school, everyone would take a gap year–that’s one year off.
Of course, there would be a twist. You would also have to delay applying for college by a year, and explain on your applications how you spent your time. That way, if you’re a spoiled, rich kid who decides to flounce on the beach at Saint-Tropez, you can kiss Harvard goodbye. You have to do something worthwhile.
Why would I force you to take time off? Four reasons:
Statistics show that gap year students tend to get better grades. It’s easy to imagine why. In working for a year maintaining roads in a national park, you might find yourself more motivated to find a less strenuous career. Or you might find that you love being outside and working with your hands. Either way, you win.
What you do in your gap year has to matter. Many countries have programs that allow young people to serve a year-long internship helping the community or environment. Some of them come with stipends. Obviously, many students would have to get real jobs to help them pay for school. That would also be perfectly acceptable and perhaps just as valuable.
A lot of Thiel’s criticism of higher education focuses on its “uselessness.” We could reduce that if kids had time to think about what they wanted to do with their lives. For example, I majored in child psychology. But while I still enjoy volunteering with children, it wasn’t the career for me. If I had time to think about it, I might have studied something else.
Most educational systems make the last year before college a pressure cooker. With so many tests, courses, assessment exams, and college applications, kids end up stressed and burnt out. A gap year would give them a chance to exhale. When they returned, they’d be a lot more focused and open to learning.
Do I expect this to happen? Of course not. Last time I checked, nobody wanted to appoint me dictator, and I wouldn’t take the job. But I would advise anyone who can to take a year off before college. I wish I did.
—Shane Atchison is Global CEO of digital creative agency POSSIBLE, where he leads the company’s long-term strategic vision of working with leading financial service organizations, consumer brands, startups, nonprofits, and community-based organizations, helping each realize the potential of the Internet and its impact on their business.