I think many 18 year-olds should consider putting off college for a year so they can finish maturing. Why? Because going immediately after high school graduation risks their not gaining as much knowledge, skill and experience from college as they would starting in a year or so. More specifically, lack of maturity risks collegiate outcomes ranging from learning less through flunking out. Why? Because college requires students facing decisions made more difficult when their parents are still calling their shots, decisions bearing on planning (e.g., prioritizing demands on young peoples’ time), and use of resources (e.g., allocating time for studying vs socializing). These decisions are easier for young adults who, at a minimum, are in the process of becoming independent adults and figuring out how to get along in the grown up world.
How can young adults do these things? One way is to take a gap year between finishing high school and starting college. That and putting away money for college at the same time.
Americorps has a set of programs allowing young adults to do these things, but there are many other plans, as well.
People accepted to Americorps are first trained to do whatever it is they’re to do for the next 10 months. My granddaughter, for example, spent three months’ training to tutor grade school kids functioning below grade level, while a 12-person crew in southeastern Arizona learned skills and knowledge they needed to travel about the region helping out as needed. All volunteers, by the way, were supported as they trained for their subsequent work.
But more important is gaining maturity, Americorps programs structure things so volunteers can develop maturity. How? By providing opportunities for volunteers to both manage their own lives and coordinate with others on the group’s projects. My granddaughter did this living with roommates as they were trained to tutor third-graders and when, under supervision, she tutored her students. The crew, in contrast, moved from site to site as a group supervised by an Americorps employee. What’s more, each volunteer in the group had responsibilities for the group (purchasing food, for example, and seeing to its preparation). What’s more, each group member was responsible for seeing that everything was going well. And if it wasn’t, they took steps to set things right.
Does this sound like a well-functioning team/family? Would you say everyone participating successfully made progressively more mature decisions and acted increasingly more responsibly? Do they no longer look like the kids they were when they graduated high school?
The Arizona volunteers pulled weeds and did some construction at a farm and food pantry serving people in need, all the while bunked in at a farm belonging to that non-profit. Strenuous work for all, but tolerable due to mature collaboration and fellowship coming from working together. It was also governed by a schedule volunteers helped draft, a schedule allowing opportunities for relaxation -- at appropriate times, of course.
When they finished in the Gila Valley, the crew packed up and headed to its next stop taking with them memories of addressing the needs of others. But you’d have to ask them what they accomplished individually because, while they did make progress, they saw what they gained as practical (e.g., no one had to wait for breakfast) and would likely be surprised if you observed that their plans and the activities they mounted to accomplish them seemed mature.
And they got paid -- both to cover their living expenses and, when their tenures were up, $6,000 to be used for their education.
Other activities can have similar impacts on young adults. The military, for example, where young men and women learn to work with others and are expected to be responsible and self-motivating. This sounds like maturity to me.
In all cases, young people are both expected to be progressively more self-guided as they become mature, responsible young adults. The most important benefit of participating programs like Americorps (in my opinion) is that these young people are better prepared to be successful when they start college. Thus their college experiences will be richer and more productive than otherwise, and less financially burdensome had the gap year not been taken.
Bottom line? The proper age to be an undergraduate is when a young person has enough maturity to profit from their experiences, and a slug of money available to help cover expenses. That’s the good news; the other good news is that there are programs available to help young adults realize these things.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.