Rethinking the Postsecondary Transition

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Recently I’ve been talking with many of the college access professionals who work with students in the transition from secondary to postsecondary school. For those who are more affluent, the idea of summer programs abroad or other bridges before college are more the norm than the exception. But for those from lower- and middle-income families, high school ends, summer happens, and college begins—all with the push to get the degree and on to a career.

The push for more higher education has reduced the gap that our youth have to acclimate and mature before college. In many of our programs, we push bridge programs to allow students to get used to campus and perhaps catch up on mathematics and other college-related skills. We understand that, when done well, these programs can have a positive impact on future college success, albeit the empirical evidence is limited due to lack of studies on this issue.

But for traditional college-aged youth, those who are 17 or 18 years of age, college is a different animal that requires a maturity that many just do not possess at that age. Moreso, how many college students really know what they want to do when they grow up? Probably not a very high percentage.

I think it’s time rethink not just K-16 education, but a transition year between high school and college that allows students the chance to explore the world and themselves; to search for an inner meaning in a complex world.

Many other countries do this through national service, typically through the military. After completion of high school, youth must spend 1-2 years serving their country before venturing off on their own journey. It might be time we consider the same thing. We do have a few programs in place, military service being the most pervasive. Voluntary by design, students who enroll in the military spend four years with the promise of funding for education. They may see the world, while also putting themselves at risk. But it is a real opportunity for many young men and women, especially those from lower-income backgrounds.

There is also AmeriCorp, which provides 75,000 one-year opportunities to students across the country to spend a year helping others while also learning about themselves. Americorp, of course, is mostly known for post-college programs, but I was pleased to find this post-high school program. While this sounds like a big program, it represents an opportunity for only about two percent of the twelfth-grade population.

A friend of mine recently told me about his son, who will graduate from high school a year early. Barely 17 years old, without a clue of what he wants to do in life, and a streak of rebellion in his blood, the immediate jump to college may not be the best career move. How many students begin college without knowledge of their ultimate goal, other than they are “supposed” to be there, and end up stopping or dropping out, complete with feelings of failure, dejectedness, anger, lost opportunity, and yes, loan debt?

I think it is time we rethink how we do the secondary-postsecondary transition, and provide some real alternatives that are not just a year off, but provide a learning experience that ultimately helps our youth think about the rest of their life, and perhaps more importantly, gain an opportunity to see how the other half lives, whichever that half may be, and embed an essence of volunteerism and philanthropy. I don’t necessarily condone a mandatory year, but if the year is designed such that it is not punitive but recreational, perhaps more than two percent of the high school population would engage in such activities.

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