But amid these issues and the ever-rising cost of higher education (college grads leave school owing an average of $19,237 in student loans, according to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study), more and more kids are matriculating. Oregon schools are reporting record numbers for the 2008-2009 school year: For instance, Portland State University predicts fall enrollment to hit 27,000, up from 24,193 just five years ago. The University of Oregon had to find off-campus housing for 400 freshmen this fall because there wasn’t enough room in the dorms. With more students going to college, it’s becoming more competitive to gain admission: Students need higher test scores, better grades, and more extracurricular activities than they did 10 years ago. At UO, the average grade point average of an incoming freshman went from 3.33 in 1997 to 3.49 in 2007.
Working to keep up with the competition in high school can cause real burnout before a student even starts freshman year, as happened to me. Perhaps we need to give kids a break—literally. Instead of riding the conveyor belt straight to college, they might be better served by taking a year to work, travel, study, volunteer, or even, I would argue, simply grow up a little. It’s a choice that might give teens the chance both to engage with the world and to become accustomed to the relatively unstructured environment they’ll find in college—exactly what Conley suggests freshmen need.
“I’ve only seen good examples of what happens when students take a year off,” says Paul Marthers, dean of admissions at Reed College, where about 10 percent of those admitted opt to defer. “They’re usually more mature and have fewer of the ‘just left home’ issues, like binge drinking.”
Some frosh seemed to see college as a chance to swill bad beer.
Taking a year off, often called taking a gap year, is common in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom (the British government even recommends it). And it’s slowly catching on in the United States. In its letter of acceptance, Harvard University encourages every student it admits to consider taking a year off. The school’s graduation rate of 98 percent may owe to the fact that many students do so, says William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions. Dartmouth College also supports gap years, and Princeton University is working on a program called the Bridge Year that will allow students to spend a year doing public service abroad before starting school. Though few Oregon colleges actively encourage it, some private schools do allow deferment. About 30 Lewis & Clark College admitted freshmen, for example, do so every year.
Perhaps it’s time that Oregon’s public universities got on board—the University of Oregon considers deferments on a case-by-case basis, generally requiring students to reapply if they want to wait a year to attend. “But kids are so stressed out these days,” says Joe Holliday, assistant vice chancellor for Student Success Initiatives with the Oregon University System. “Our goal is to get more students to go to college, and if a gap year helps us achieve that, then we would ultimately embrace it.”
My father ended up embracing the notion, too, even meeting up with me in Greece. I’m still not sure when he smiled widest: When I strode across the stage in 2000 to collect my degree, summa cum laude, or when we stood on a beach in Santorini, sipping ouzo and watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea.