.Today we received a phone call from a young woman in her first year attending a large, private, urban university. "How are things going?" we wanted to know. "What's up?" The concern in her voice was evident. "Everything's great," she remarked. "Except, well, Chemistry."
It seems that this one class, necessary to fulfill her premed requirements, is being graded in the strangest of ways. Of the 700 or so students in the course, only 30 percent would be allowed to earn A's, B's, and C's, leaving the rest of the students with lower grades or the choice to exit the class. Many had already done so, and this student was considering following them out, since she had only a couple of days to take an incomplete. She didn't want to risk a D or an F.
Earning 100 on her labs and understanding the class material, she was nevertheless earning C's and lower on tough exams with this forced grading curve. She noted that she couldn't quite understand the grading system, what was expected on the tests, or what her options were. She had tried to contact her professor, but, given the size of the class, she wasn't getting a response. "Will this ruin my chances for medical school?" she wondered.
A week ago, we spoke with another young woman who had applied early decision to a competitive, small, private university. She was earning A's and B's but was highly dissatisfied with her experience. "I knew almost right after I was admitted in December," she revealed, "that I had made the wrong choice. I didn't bother revisiting in April, since I was already locked in and hadn't been allowed to apply elsewhere."
We wanted to know why she had committed so quickly to this college, though we suspected we knew the answers, which are so common these days. "I liked the place," she commented, "and everyone said I'd have a better chance if I went ED, so I figured I'd get it over with." Highly mature and well spoken, she was ready for a larger university with more social options and programs.
We also met recently with another student desiring a transfer, this time from a selective, medium-sized private university in a cosmopolitan city. She was doing well academically, but had realized that she wanted to pursue art history in more depth, and that her current university didn't have the programs she was looking for. Socially, she also felt she needed a change. "I joined a sorority and all that," she sighed, "but I really haven't been thrilled by all the cliques and social snobbery I've found. I thought it would be fun and different, but I guess I've really outgrown that whole scene."
Finally, we received a disconcerting e-mail from a father whose daughter had just begun college at a small, private college in a small town. She had fallen in love (those are usually the words students use) with the college early in the admissions process, and had been thrilled to get admitted.
She had, however, called her parents after two weeks, complaining about the incredible and intolerable amount of partying going on among her fellow freshmen. Her father related her shock at having a roommate who regularly wet her bed because she was so drunk, and a hallmate who smoked pot "24/7." She had the character to call her parents and ask for a change of scene, rather than join the crowd to look cool.
You might have noticed that all these stories concern young women. That is not intentional, but it seems to us more than anecdotal evidence that more girls than boys are complaining about the lack of social maturity on many college campuses.
The girls are complaining consistently about many of the issues raised above, and they are actively seeking changes of school. Yes, the boys are also calling and writing and coming home after failing one or more classes. Some girls are ending up in substance-abuse treatment due to an inability to handle the scene (we had one such e-mail from a mother this week).
Academic, social, financial, physical, and mental health issues are the bane of many freshman college experiences. A bad freshman year has a strongly negative impact on a student's future college experience. Data show how truly terrible are our national rates of sophomore retention and six-year, let alone four-year graduation rates. What's a college to do?
When we sit down with families in the spring of senior year to talk about college choices, we often raise the issue of taking a gap year, of asking for a deferral in order to pursue an interest, work, volunteer, or just take a break.
Many students and parents recognize the advantages of taking a year off before college, but few actually follow through. Parents are afraid that if students get off the college train, they might never get back on. Students are excited about all the college-y stuff they have been looking forward to, especially independence from their parents, new friends, and, yes, the ability to go nuts for a while.
They are also in many cases eager to move forward with their education, prepare for a job or professional graduate school and career, and avoid incurring too much debt. But what if a college didn't allow its students to enter directly after high school?
What would it be like if a selective college admitted a class of students and then told them to go find something useful to do for a year prior to enrolling? "Don't worry; we'll hold your place. Here's a list of exciting opportunities, including some that will help you save for college while paying you a stipend. You can study abroad if you want. We won't mind if you earn a few credits, and we have 10 exchange relationships with international schools. A combination of travel, cultural and language education, and service might do you good. Oh, and we have a list of corporate sponsors who are excited to have one-year interns to gain work experience related to their possible field of study."
Would they apply? How would you pay for it? Would other colleges follow suit? Those are the practical details, of course. Could you phase in the program over four years, trying to get a quarter of the class the first year, and then a larger proportion each of the following years to participate? Could you build your endowment to fund such a radical experiment? Would you pay merit awards to talented students so as not to lose them to other colleges willing to enroll them right away? Would you lose or gain diversity in your class? Good press or bad? Rankings? Budget? Athletic teams?
Sure, there are many difficult obstacles that would stand in the way of implementing such a plan. Nevertheless, we have come increasingly to the view that a year off before starting college could perhaps have the greatest overall positive effect on retention and graduation rates of any higher education reform.
We suspect that after a year of work, travel, volunteerism, and experiential education, most students would move well beyond many of the issues they would have faced as freshmen. Our hope is that this experiment would be conducted by a group of colleges operating in concert, to support one another and offer a wider variety of options to a larger group of students. There would be many questions to answer, and many details to work out, but we think it is well worth the discussion.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Green's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.