Students Take a Year Off To See the 'Real' World
For many, time away renews motivation
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — APRIL ROSE has been playing the piano most of her life. But after launching into a major in piano performance her freshman year at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif., she says she was ''burned out.'' So she decided to take a year off. Instead, Ms. Rose spent this past year far from the confines of a university classroom, teaching English and poetry to grade schoolers in India, working on an organic farm in Australia, and touring New Zealand. Back from her journeys, Rose is enrolled at Santa Barbara City College in California where she is continuing her music studies. ''I'm really excited and have so much motivation to go back to school - that's what this did for me,'' she says. Rose is among a growing number of students, who, after years on the education treadmill, are taking time off between high school and college or during college. The reasons vary: Many students are plain old burned out; others don't have a clue about what they want to major in; and some wind up on academic probation and decide that a break might help jump-start their grade point average. Cornelius Bull, founder of the Center for Interim Programs in Cambridge, Mass., is a staunch advocate of students taking time off during their academic careers. ''I'm promoting that no one should go to college out of high school,'' Mr. Bull says in an interview. For the past 15 years, Interim has placed some 3,000 students, like Rose, in unconventional work and study programs around the globe. Students, for example, can teach English as a second language to children in Nepal; work in a chateau in France; train sled dogs who race in the Iditarod; or study at Oxford University. (Interim charges $1,500 for two years of counseling and placement.) In the past three years, Mr. Bull says, he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of interested students. A Princeton University graduate, Bull bases his philosophy on 10 years of experience as a teacher and 20 years as a headmaster in Istanbul, Vienna, Arizona, and Texas. ''The more I observed kids, the more I saw them marching off to college [without] direction. They were doing it because it's what happened next,'' he says. ''It's very important, after you've had 12 years of school, to pause and grow up a little - to have a little broader perspective - before you go off [to college].'' Rose says she got to the point where she was ''just living to graduate from high school. And once I graduated from high school, I needed something to restore my motivation to go back and get yet another degree.'' Rose says she chose to go to India because it was a country she has been fascinated with her whole life. ''Every day my eyes were opened,'' she says. ''I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't really know what they want to do,'' she says. As a result, Rose is considering a double major in cultural anthropology and piano performance. Statistics show that Rose is not alone. According to a Department of Education survey, only about 31 percent of college graduates in 1990 completed their bachelor's degree within four years of graduating from high school. The survey also found that between 1977 and 1990, the percentage of students completing college within four years of graduating from high school declined, while the percentage taking more than six years to graduate increased during that period. David Denman, a former teacher and education consultant, runs a similar placement program called Time Out near San Francisco. He says he, too, has seen an increase in the number of students taking a break from school. ''It seems to be more acceptable than in the past,'' he says. ''Students don't need to rationalize it quite so much.'' Mr. Denman says he especially recommends a break for students on academic probation. ''Most kids who end up on probation end up [there] not because they're not academically able,'' he contends. ''College accepted them because they are academically able. They're too immature.'' Advocates say they see parents and school administrators slowly warming up to the idea for two reasons: People are taking a closer look at the country's education system and finding that it isn't necessarily serving students' needs; and the skyrocketing cost of college makes parents less willing to shell out big bucks for kids who aren't making the grade. Yet, while Bull contends that he's never had a student decide not to continue his or her education, many parents aren't supporters of the idea, because they're afraid that their children won't go back to school once they do take time off. April Rose's mother, Karen Rose, says she was the one who encouraged her daughter to take time off from college. ''It ended up probably being the highlight of her life,'' she says. Mrs. Rose says she never worried that her daughter wouldn't continue her education. ''I think it's more of a concern if you're throwing money away, and they don't want to be [in school],'' she says. After switching majors twice, Teresa Hirsch decided to take a year off after her sophomore year (1993) at Michigan State University. Like Rose, Ms. Hirsch taught school in Nepal and worked on an organic farm in Australia. But while many of her friends ''thought what she was doing was neat,'' Hirsch says, they agreed that they couldn't take time off themselves because of pressure from parents. Andrew Whelahan, director of guidance at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., says the key to ensuring that students go back is that they apply to college and then be allowed to defer admission. Those students he's worked with who take time off and never apply, he says, tend not to go on to college. Harvard University has been a long-time advocate of students taking a break from the rigors of academia. About 20 percent of undergraduates at Harvard take time off, says Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons. Yet the school has a 97 percent graduation rate. Mr. Fitzsimmons says he sees many students today starting intense academic preparation and athletic competition as early as middle school. While students are more academically prepared when they get to college, he says, they're also more stressed out. ''The reason we're so high on the idea,'' Fitzsimmons says, ''is because students come back [with] a much better sense of what kinds of things they would like to do with their college opportunities.'' The University of Virginia in Charlottesville just instituted a deferred undergraduate admissions policy for the first time. ''We felt that the reasons for students wanting to take off seemed to be valid,'' says Larry Groves, associate director of admissions.