There were a lot of “hairy-faced men around” during the beard boom of the early 80’s, at least according to Roald Dahl. Dahl was a little wary of people with beards, writing “when a man grows hair all over his face, it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that’s why he does it. He’d rather you didn’t know.”
Image from The Twits, by Roald Dahl. A literary and artistic masterpiece.
It’s 2016 and we are in the midst of another boom: the college advice boom. This boom is marked by flawed and anecdotal research marketed towards everyone, but written with a very tiny audience in mind (specifically, very wealthy or famous people who plan on attending highly selective universities).
This advice adequately communicates expectations about what college perhaps should be, but is not an accurate picture of what a vast majority of students in the U.S. will actually experience. Here are three examples of that kind of research.
Example 1: Gap Years
This New York Times blog post about the benefits of the gap year claims that students who take time off may be able to “make better choices about things like alcohol and sex and have a better understanding” of what they want from college. As evidence, the author references Harvard, Middlebury, Princeton and a student who “travel(ed) through Europe with assorted new friends.”
This article from Slate claims that “students who take a gap year seem to drink less when they get to college.” The evidence for this claim was based on another blog by a parent who was wondering (but never claimed) whether or not a gap year in Europe will impact a daughter’s drinking habits in college. This isn’t even anecdote – it’s opinion. And bad research.
That study out of Middlebury – largely anecdotal and based on a small group of high-incomestudents – has been used a lot to advocate gap years as good for all students, regardless of family income or circumstances, including here, here, here, here, and even NPR. The role of general maturity and growing up is not mentioned anywhere.
For most college students, a gap year or any kind of delayed entry is a bad idea. This is because momentum is crucial. Anything that breaks that momentum – like a gap year, taking a semester off, or a high number of course withdrawals – comes with the potential for negative consequences.
It also has a lot to do with identity. Many low-income students’ identities are oriented around many things, like being a student, caring for dependents, and work. Upper-income students’ identities tend to be oriented around one thing: being a student. Gap years can be a particularly vulnerable time for students whose energy, time, and resources must be devoted to competing priorities.
The bottom line: Don’t take a gap year. If your goal is to go to and complete college, and you come from a middle or low-income family, focus on keeping up the momentum and stay in college.
If you must take a gap year, find a program that is connected to a college and will help pay for it. There are some subsidized programs, but space is very limited, according to some.
Taking a year off to “save money for college” is an irrational financial decision. This is because you are trading a year of low-income work for a year of high-income work.
If you feel like you need to clarify life goals and explore, there are plenty of opportunities to do that in college – you can study abroad, take an alternative spring break, or participate in volunteer programs. If a gap year needs to be abroad or far away from home, the good news is that there are colleges and universities all over the world — many of their credits even transfer.
If students need to learn independence and responsibility, they could even consider spending a gap year at a two-year college – they will likely learn a lot more about independence, responsibility, and hard work from two-year college students than from a gap year wandering around with “assorted friends” in Europe.
Or better yet, you could consider taking a gap year between college graduation and your first job. You will have the degree is in you back pocket and the lifetime financial risk is much lower.Take it from an Art History major – every minute spent worrying about finding a career in your youth is a wasted minute.
Example 2: Working in College
Making the Most of College asserts that working in college has a negligible impact on grades. That is only partially correct. What the book doesn’t communicate is that the impact of working in college is highly dependent on where and how much a student works.
The more selective the university, the less likely a student is to work. According to National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), nearly one out of five (19%) full-time community college students work 30 or more hours per week, compared to one out of 250 (0.4%) students at highly-selective (wealthy) universities.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Working part-time on campus is good, but working long hours off-campus has consequences, including longer time to degree, lower persistence rates, less time for academic work, decreased wellness benefits and higher levels of stress, and less time to engage in meaningful campus activities.
The bottom-line: Working part-time on campus is ideal; working long hours off-campus is not. Moderate off-campus employment is also acceptable, but the negative consequences increase as the number of hours working increase. Unfortunately, a lot of students really have no choice. Students who work long hours off-campus while in college are very practical, and they mostly figure out a way to make things work, but at a significant cost to their learning and development.
Example 3: Extra-curricular Activities.
This article asserts that students are engaging in more extra-curricular activities at the expense of academic work. The author at least clarifies he is not describing students who need full-time jobs, care for dependents, or those pursuing specialized careers (but does not clarify that his observations are based on students at a university that represents a tiny sliver of the total U.S. College population. And has a lot of money).
According to NSSE data, students at highly-selective universities spend a lot more time on extra-curricular activities. 81% at highly-selective universities are involved at least one hour per week, compared to 39% at non-competitive institutions.
Of the 3.5 million 2013 high school graduates, 34% didn’t even enroll in college right away. Another 25% enrolled in open admissions colleges. Most of the other 41% enrolled in places with moderate admissions standards.
It would appear, then, that the vast majority of high school and college students don’t participate in extra-curricular activities because of helicopter or snowplow parenting, grade inflation, admissions-portfolio padding, or ambition. Contrary to what that article asserts, all that is a myth. Rather, almost all students participate in extra-curricular activities because they are fun or interesting.
The bottom-line: Stay involved in extra-curricular activities. A lot of people don’t pick a major based on their life passion. A lot of other people don’t even really have a life passion. Extra-curricular activities provide a place to channel that passion and give students something fun to do besides watching Netflix or YouTube. Even Quidditch is an option.
Part of going to college is learning to manage your time and priorities. Here is what I tell my kids: “My job is to get you to 18. We have given you many advantages in life. If you mess this up, it’s on you. Not us.”
Students should be told to stay involved. It won’t hurt their learning or development.
Why Do Journalists, Authors, and Even Some Academics Over-sensationalize the College Experience via Anecdote and Bad Research?
Books like Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult paint the transition from high school to what’s next as a transcendent and poignant experience of epic significance, and that for almost everyone what’s next is a very selective university experience. This is not the case for almost everyone.
In The First Year Out, Clydesdale speculates about some journalists and some academics’ motivations and the appeal of college-advice tailored for a very narrow audience:
This may be due to authors’ fascination, as high school graduates occupy an ambiguous and even exotic cultural position, enjoying many adult freedoms while having fewer adult responsibilities. (Or the) authors’ desire to confirm cherished assumptions, as teens are sufficiently diverse that authors can readily find a few teens whose stories support a pet theory. (Or maybe) even authors’ convenience, as many authors work with teens full-time and thus of a steady supply of (students) about whom they can write. I quickly learned that teen lives are not nearly as exotic as fictional, nostalgic, and popular accounts suggest (p. 44).
A vast majority of high school graduates are much more conventional and practical. For most college students, the main concerns are probably figuring how to pay for college, finding work, making new friends, or homesickness. As this article from 538 notes, a majority of young people in the U.S. are more concerned with how to complete and get out of college, as opposed to getting in.
This myth is even evident in popular fiction. The fictional The Admissions (which I really liked and gave 5 stars on Goodreads), attempts to serve as a kind a of cautionary tale about selective-university ambition. The family appears to opt out of the rat race. But not really, and what could have been a great book stumbles at the end. The family seems immune from the economic and educational consequences of their transition and decisions (which includes an implied gap year). Most students are focused on managing daily activities, and when encountering a life transition, are much more likely to retreat to the familiar, not the new.
How to Evaluate College Advice
- A lot of the advice from college advice books is fine. People should just take that advice with a grain of salt.
- Unless you’re looking for advice that is irrelevant or tells you what you already know, then I wouldn’t recommend getting advice from the New York Times. Nothing against the Times in general. Just take their advice with a lot of grains of salt.
- In fact, don’t take advice from most of the national media. This Washington Post article writes how hectic “K-12 schooling has become, noting that ‘training for college scholarships — or professional contracts — begins early, even in grammar school.’ ” No it hasn’t, not for a vast majority of the population at least. Just writing an opinion down and backing it up with anecdote doesn’t make it true. Take newspaper and media advice about college with the whole salt shaker.
- Be cautious of the anecdote and research source. When someone writes that an experience will help students, and then references a friend’s nephew’s experience and how their grandparents paid for that experience, it should not be taken as an article of faith. If one makes a claim about all college students, and bases their research on a group of 50 students at Middlebury, proceed with caution.
- Rather than reading books about getting into college and managing the college experience, students should be encouraged to explore books about how to be a good learner and good student. That advice is usually based on research.