What's the Rush? Why College Can Wait

August 02, 1998

What039s the Rush Why College Can Wait

It never occurred to me that my son would not go to college. His father got a Ph.D. from Duke. I have a B.A. from Columbia. There was no question my child would do the same, and in that I was wrong.

Evan had got into a competitive high school and scored 1,220 on his S.A.T.'s. The fact that he had stumbled his way through three years at Bronx Science was laid either to learning disabilities or to boredom. ''You'll see,'' teachers would tell me, ''he'll catch fire one of these days.''

But he hasn't yet, and I am here to tell you: There are worse things than not getting your child into college. Here's one: getting your child into college.

Evan had wanted to go (''of course,'' as he put it). But two years and $50,000 later, he dropped out of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

I had refused to listen to what admissions officers were telling me: He was not grown-up enough to take college seriously. If he was going to succeed in school, they said, he needed time off -- to work, to travel, perhaps to do an internship that would inspire direction.

Robert Gilpin, a youth counselor, encourages high school seniors to study other options. ''As far as college is concerned,'' he said, ''if you have the courage to opt out of the lemmings' rush to the sea, you're a special person.''

Consider some statistics:

* A 1992 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 30.6 percent of college freshmen did not return in the fall for their sophomore year.

* Of students who entered four-year colleges, only 26 percent received a bachelor's degree within five years, according to a 1994 study by the center.

* As of 1996, only 23.6 percent of Americans over the age of 25 had a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the Census Bureau.

And consider this: Counselors say that the number of students taking a break between high school and college is increasing. Some are struggling academically but many, it turns out, are superior students.

Twenty percent of Harvard students, for example, take off a year or more during their schooling. ''We encourage students to take time off,'' said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard. ''In fact, in our admission letter, we talk about the idea of taking a year off. We feel it's a good thing to do, to get off this very fast train that most of them have been on.''

Mr. Gilpin, who teaches history at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., is also president of Time Out Associates, one of the agencies that has cropped up to advise teen-agers on alternatives to starting college right after high school, like a postgraduate year at a boarding school to bring up grades or a yearlong program like Dynamy, in Worcester, Mass., which provides a dormlike environment, counseling and internship work.

''Kids are tired,'' Mr. Gilpin said. ''They take time off because they're bored. They're burned out. They do it because they haven't done well and want to do better. Those who are upper middle class, entitled and mobile take a year off to better their college choices.''

Better that, he says, than begin college on the wrong foot or in the wrong place. ''What most people don't know is, if you have a bad year in college, it is the most difficult baggage to get rid of,'' he said. ''It's very hard to move from college to college if you're carrying a 2.3 or a 2.5. Kids who don't identify their discontent with college will find themselves in a perilous situation.''

It is preferable for a student to succeed upward -- say, from work to community college to four-year college -- than it is to aim high, trip and fall down the academic ladder. A bad situation can mean all or some of the following: drinking and drugs, depression, skipped or dropped classes, incompletes, bad grades, flip-flopping majors, flunking out. Meanwhile, it is costing anywhere from $6,000 to $30,000 a year to stay in college, not including the state-of-the-art computer, trips home at Christmas and a new North Face ski jacket.

It's an expensive way to find yourself.

In two years at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a school with excellent academic rehabilitation programs, Evan revealed himself to be the kind of student one expert calls ''bright loafers,'' children without the energy, interest or sense of urgency to do schoolwork, children whose parents always have to ask, Have you done your homework?

''Among the poorest risks are students whose S.A.T.'s or A.C.T. scores are significantly higher than their grades,'' said Geoffrey Gould, director of admissions at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Karyl Clemens, dean of admissions at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., was more optimistic. ''Parents wring their hands over sons, especially, just wondering when they are going to wake up and smell the coffee,'' she said. ''The good news is that they do, eventually.''

The problem is what to do with them in the meantime. Larry Griffith, director of admissions at the University of Delaware, still remembers his dilemma several years ago as high school counselor to a gifted athlete.

''As his counselor, I knew that this kid was not ready for college,'' he said. ''He had not connected academically.'' But when Mr. Griffith tried to convey that, the boy's family's reaction was ''very negative.'' The young man went off to college but did not graduate.

''It has stuck with me to today,'' Mr. Griffith said. ''If he'd gone to a different place, or taken a postgraduate year or gone to a community college . . . .''

Mr. Griffith believes that some people -- even bright ones -- may not be cut out for college. ''I don't believe that learning isn't for everyone,'' he said, ''but schooling may not be for everyone.

Unfortunately, that is hard wisdom to accept, especially when parents and peers are asking your son or daughter: Got your applications in yet? More important, what kind of pressure, shame and guilt do young people feel when they believe there is only one possible destination after high school -- college -- and they are not up to the task?

''I say, 'Take your midlife crisis now,' Cornelius Bull said he advises young people. Eighteen years ago, after a career as a headmaster and teacher, he founded the Center for Interim Programs, an organization in Cambridge, Mass., that connects teen-agers with internships in which they can do jobs like teaching English in Turkey or building homes in Canada.

''I don't think any 18-year-old belongs in college,'' he said. ''I am dead serious.''

Parents, he said, fuss too much over getting their children into college, and would be masochistic to send a child who says he or she just wants to have a good time. He told the story of parents who had warned their daughter that if she was on academic probation in June, she wouldn't go back in the fall. ''I told them, 'You're insane -- tell her a B average or you work at McDonald's,' '' Mr. Bull said. Fathers are hopeless. Fathers say, 'But they'll never go back to school.' Well, it just doesn't happen. I think the kids just need surcease. Get out of their way, most of the time, and they'll be fine.''

He turns philosophical when talking about the good things that can happen to a teen-ager who is, as he puts it, ''allergic to school.''

''Tacking gives you wind in your sails,'' he said. ''You proceed by indirection. Our society thinks that's dalliance. But how many times do you get the opportunity to sample things, even if they are irrelevant?''

David Sohl, 19, admits that he did not apply himself at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn. ''I didn't have a good high school transcript,'' he said. ''I was very unfocused and slacked off a bit. I didn't have the good background for the colleges I wanted to get into.''

Mr. Sohl, who said he would like to work in theater, spent a year at Dynamy, which was recommended by Mr. Gilpin. He interned in a professional theater and a recording studio.

''You get out of it what you put into it,'' he said. ''I spent some time building up a reputation as a good worker, someone who was punctual. My adviser has only glowing things to say about me. During high school, I didn't have that.''

What made the difference?

''I found something I was interested in.''

After a year off, he is waiting to hear from his first choice, Columbia College, a small private school in Chicago.

Statistics from the Department of Education do indicate that those who delay starting college are less likely to finish than those who go straight from high school. But that is no consolation to a mother who sent a child to college only to see him drop out.

The time Evan spent at R.I.T. was not wasted. He learned that he will never be a mechanical engineer. He made friends, tried his sea legs as a (somewhat) independent person, sampled psychology. He became an authority on beers of the world. He got two years older. He himself believes the time was not wasted. ''I met Gretchen,'' he said. Gretchen is his girlfriend.

These days he is digging fencepost holes and doing roofing for $8 an hour for a contractor in Rochester. He is supporting himself, paying off credit card debts and already sounding wistful about college.

''Without a college degree,'' he told me recently, ''I feel like I'm out there all by myself, like I have nothing to fall back on.''

Mr. Gilpin has a favorite saying: ''College is the most expensive buffet in the world -- $30,000 a year -- and you'd better be sure you're hungry.''

Perhaps it is only by being away from school -- by being out of the academic loop -- that my son will, at long last, find that hunger.

by Linda Lee, The New York Times

updated: 12 years ago