College Gap Year or Something Better?

Where did you learn the most in college – in the classroom or outside of it?  Which parts of the college experience stuck with you the most? 

For me and most others I ask, most of college’s education and memories happened outside the classroom.  Sure, there were flashes of enlightenment in some classrooms (Ithaca College’s finest, Marty Brownstein, You’re still the best!) but the vast majority of the life skills I gleaned sprang from late night parties, unusual roommates, and the countless mistakes I made trying to figure out life beyond my parents’ house.  And though I left college twenty five years ago, living in a college town has afforded me the insight to see the same basic college experience exists today.  Or at least it did until COVID showed up.

Now we’re seeing the college experience turned on its head, which is unfortunate timing for my daughter, Madeline, and the other high school class of ’20 grads embarking on the college journey amidst a fog of uncertainty.

For the last few months, Madeline, her mom/my wife, Jessica, and I have been jumping on periodic Zoom calls with her chosen college’s admissions office to stay abreast of their fall semester plans.  Funny, I haven’t been sold so hard since Jessica and I attended a vacation property timeshare pitch.  “We’ll keep your child safe!”  “Our professors are ready for anything!”

The implied message: “Please don’t bail on us.  We need your money.”  And with the price of college having skyrocketed at double the inflation rate since I was a student, the money colleges seek from my pocket and my daughter’s loans is significant.

Boil all those Zoom calls down and here’s what Madeline and other incoming students face:

  • Limited social activities,
  • Abbreviated orientation,
  • No roommates,
  • Limited dining hall access,
  • Shortened semester,
  • Minimum 50% classes online,
    …and the kicker…
  • No discount.

Add it all up and we envision Madeline and her classmates sitting in lonely dorm rooms eating prepackaged dining halls food and watching grainy videos of classroom professors trying to navigate a digital interface.

Which begs the question, is this a good investment?  Will Madeline and her peers gain as much value from this pared down offering?  For Madeline, the answer is no.  She’s opted for a gap year but even that is challenging given the typical 18 year old’s urgency to live independently in the thick of travel restrictions.

Yet opportunity lies within every challenge, so Madeline is planning an unusual path that (perhaps?) sets a new precedent for recent high school grads.  How does this sound to you?

  • Our family has saved some money for Madeline to earn a four year college degree but not enough to support four years of college and a gap year.
  • For the Fall ’20-Spring ’21 school year, Madeline will take online college courses with an accredited school that specializes in online delivery (Southern New Hampshire?  Strayer?  Many from which to choose)
  • During this period, the money that would’ve covered college room and board she’ll instead use to rent a small apartment in whichever geographic area she chooses.
  • After a two week quarantine, she’ll explore that area while working a part-time job.
  • She and at least one of her high school class of ’20 friends on a similar track will room together.
  • Provided the “normal” college experience returns next year she’ll transfer her credits over and enter a sophomore OR if she likes the online/travel approach, she can continue for all four years, bouncing semester to semester or year to year to anywhere on Planet Earth she’d like (and her mom approves, of course😊)

The most surprising part of the plan:  Even if Madeline earns her bachelor’s degree via an online platform while traveling the world for four straight years, the experience will cost less than the ‘traditional” college experience she’d been planning.

So, kind reader, which path would you choose for yourself or for your Class of ’20 high school grad?  Which experience offers the best education and life skills – four years planted at one school or four years roaming from place to place?

If there’s a silver lining to this COVID crisis, perhaps it’s the chance we all have to press the reset button.  A moment to step back and ask, “Am I on the right path?  Is there a better way to do this?”

No question our family would be more settled seeing Madeline glide into the college experience we envisioned but perhaps her journey, like yours and mine, will prove most exciting when we step off the beaten path and take the path less traveled.

Congrats, Madeline and the high school Class of 2020! You are blazing new trails.

18 Replies to “College Gap Year or Something Better?”

  1. Hey Ben, good to see you after a long time!! Congratulations to Madeline and congrats to you for this post. In my opinion, a college gap is a good idea but after that, College is the best place to learn about life and some theories…. Good luck on your choice helping Madeline to chose hers. Best regards, Oswaldo

    1. Oswaldo! How nice to hear from you. Yes – College remains a perfect place to learn and grow. I’ll be sure to pass along to Madeline your comments and congrats.

  2. Love it. As I tell my daughters everyday your success will not be determined by what college you go to, it will however be determined by the love and respect you give others along with some good old fashion hard work.

    1. Nelson, Would you please join me for the 99% of job interviews I conduct with recent college grads who seem to have missed your message? Ha ha! Just kidding, but your message to your daughters is terrific. Glad to hear you’re sharing it with them.

  3. Ben –
    Give my best to Madeline and tell her that she is one smart young lady like her Dad! I could not agree more with your logic.

    I attended the local community college because I could not afford a 4 year college initially. I was glad that I did because it gave me another year with Dad, who passed away during that time. With part time jobs and survivor benefits, I was able to go on to get my undergraduate degree and later my MBA.

    I still return periodically to campus to visit with my roommate and dorm mates to celebrate Our Time in History. Some of the best times in my life.

    BTW, Robin and I will be spending a week up at Treasure Lake in August and plan on visiting Happy Valley. Will email you dates.



    1. Bill, Madeline will appreciate your reply. She and others benefit from pep talks like yours reinforcing that fact that one does not need a traditional four year degree from an expensive, fancy school to start life on the right foot. Delighted to see you and Robin – keep us posted!

  4. Hi Ben, it’s hard to imagine that this coming year on traditional college campuses is going to be an enjoyable experience. Definitely would explore alternative options like you described for Madeline. Even gap years are not going to be the same. Hunkering down in a place with outdoor opportunities and low population density and kind of cool sounds better to me. Besides traditional online classes there are super cheap online courses from places like Udemy to explore subjects. Universities do provide free or cheap software so it may be time to explore open source software or see what distance programs offer. Good luck to Madeline and the family. G

    1. Greg, So interesting you mention Udemy. We have software and firmware engineers at our company who use Udemy to gain proficiency in skills for which we pay significant raises! What a good idea for Madeline and others seeking alternative education. Thank you for sharing. P.S.: You still riding that Aztec warrior frame? Steel is real!

      1. Haha! One of the boys at Freeze Thaw took it off my hands a number of years ago. Merckx Reynolds 753 with Anasazi rock art with the fired ceramic effect. Old School. Still ride steel with my Waterford. Best, G

  5. Ben, Wonderful “The Glass is Half Full” insight!!! All the best for Madeline!

    1. Thanks, Eric! You successfully coached your boys through interesting post-high school journeys; taking a page from your playbook. Still at 14 SPL but certainly not any faster… How ’bout you?

  6. Tremendous blog!!! Great thoughts. I love the way you all are thinking about this. Pave your own road!!! The current college set up from the college boards to the application process, and the amount of tuition, really reflects a flawed system. So this may be the perfect time for a reset. I think it is important during these sad and uncertain times, to create certainty in your own life . . . by improving your own circumstances, whether its picking up a new instrument, setting exercise goals, learning a new language, finishing a project that needs attention, read a book you have had on your shelf, meaningfully connect with family and friends, focus on a new business or angle, etc. etc. etc. For the rest of our kids life this will be a crucial formative period, and will they remember it as being sheltered in all sense of that word or will they look at it as an opportunity that they made the most of while being smart about the risks that this world presents. Thanks Ben for your blog. It is always so insightful and thought provoking.

    1. Groman, In case others missed it I’m reposting the middle of your comment:
      For the rest of our kids life this will be a crucial formative period, and will they remember it as being sheltered in all sense of that word or will they look at it as an opportunity that they made the most of while being smart about the risks that this world presents.”
      You’re spot on – Our kids WILL remember this pandemic era, probably more vividly than those who are older, and they’re living through it during critically formative years.
      I’m printing out your comment and taping it to Madeline’s mirror – which I’m sure will make her mad at me ha ha 🙂 – but it’s that valuable.
      You’ve been a sage counselor for me for decades, Groman, and now my daughter gets to benefit from you, too. Awesome.

  7. I love this plan! My best wishes to Madeline and if she finds her way to Pittsburgh, let me know. (Though I’m sure there are more exotic locales to choose.)

    1. Hi Leslie! Apologies I just came across your comment. I hope you’re enjoying all the adventures that Pittsburgh has to offer. You live in a great town but we still miss you in this one 🙂

  8. I would only be able to answer that question if I had access to a 25 yard pool in my region!! But I completed a 12 mile swim in Lake Seneca on Saturday. Life in the Covid era!! As they say in marathon swimming – one hand in front of the other. Same for business and education.

    1. Waterman Eric! No idea how I missed this comment earlier but I wonder if you’re back to staring at a black line for 5,000 yds/day? Looking forward to catching up soon.

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