Sir Ken Robinson called it “academic inflation.” Boston analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies called it “upcredentialing.” One person who calls himself Biffo the Bear in an Internet chat room called it “degreeification.” Whichever term you pick to discuss the increasing demand for higher education degrees in our workforce, the fact remains that we need our citizenry to be college prepared in higher numbers and with greater urgency than in the past.
This growing need for a college-prepared workforce places increased demand on schools to create college-ready students. The Career and College Readiness Standards for much of public education foster the skills and dispositions for academic excellence, but equally important in this mission are the soft skills: the higher order reasoning and executive functioning skills. We typically consider these kinds of learning the byproducts or the modalities of other learning experiences. But what if there were programs for which the precise foundation was just this?
In the Nordic countries, there is an educational structure they call the folkehøjskole. These started in Denmark at the urging of N.F.S. Grundtvig and his philosophy that education had become deadened and that learning needed to be a living experience. In the 1850s, this model came to life as rural, adult-education programs that sought to empower the agrarian people during times of political unrest. The goal was empowerment of the common person. Today, these programs have grown into a cultural phenomenon attracting participation from many, but largely attended by the 18-24-year-old population. Publicly funded and part of each nation’s comprehensive plan for education, the folkehøjskole has spurred models in the U.S. such as the Highlander Folk School, the Chautauqua of New York, the community college concept, public adult-learning centers and the gap-year program industry.
The U.S. gap program industry is one that—in its current forms—is the most like the programs we find in the Nordic region. Gap programs appeal to the 18-24-year-old student. They are shorter termed—three months to one year. They engage the student specifically in non-academic content, proctor no exams, award no credits and confer no degrees. The concept is simple: Students learn the enduring skills of adulthood by engaging in real-life interactions and projects. The biggest difference between the Scandinavian model and the U.S. model is the cost. Gap programs typically bear a cost to families, and a cursory review of the offerings shows that some gap tuitions can rival those of colleges. The encouraging news, however, is that we have many students doing this work and they have solved the funding question.
Covering the gap
In the winter and spring of 2015, I surveyed the 18-24-year-old, undergraduate population of one public Maine university and received questionnaire responses that led to face-to-face interviews. Four students’ stories revealed that some students are engaging in gap programs that offer them valuable, non-academic, developmental opportunities at no cost to their families. Additionally, they are experiencing high levels of success in their college careers and they attribute this entirely to their ability to step away from academics and gain meaningful skills and dispositions for the rigor of college.
Three students hailed from New England. The other student came from a Midwest state but found a home in New England after her gap experience drew her into environmental work in Maine. Their programs included the Student Conservation Association, the AmeriCorps organization, postsecondary foreign exchange offered by the student’s own high school, and an opportunity that arose organically from one student’s extracurricular involvement with dressage and the equine industry. I learned during this study that affluence was not necessarily an indicator of a student’s ability to access these enriching, gap experiences. Each of their programs were either free—for example, through apprenticeships—or externally funded as in the cases of AmeriCorps and the Student Conservation Association.
The hole in this transition, however, is the paucity of information that schools and families have about these programs. We consider college-readiness so urgent a topic at this time that a side step from academics can be considered a step in the wrong direction. While pursuing a case study of one of my subjects, I spoke with her father who told me that his neighbors and relatives were agog that he would allow his daughter to take a year away from academics. He even said that some relatives were “devastated.”
This brings us to a deeper conversation about how we want to see our students striking out into the world. Is the speed and the quantity of their college attainment the most important statistic, or should we be tuning into the enduring quality of their experiences? We have a responsibly to ensure that all students have the skills and dispositions for their adult lives and we owe it to them to explore the gap as a time that important developmental experiences are happening. Could folkehøjskoles be the future for New England? The main thing holding us back is our narrow belief that college is the only commendable decision for our newly minted high school graduates.
Sara M. Flowers is the director of adult and community education for the Lisbon, Maine School Department and an adjunct faculty member of English for the Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston, Maine. She is a recent Ph.D. graduate of Lesley University’s Educational Studies: Educational Leadership program.
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Biffo the Bear (2011, November 23). More Tory ignorance of real life. Digital Spy, DS Forums. Retrieved from http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?p=54788585.
Burning Glass Technologies, (2014). Moving the goalposts: How demand for a bachelor’s degree is reshaping the workforce. Retrieved from http://www.burning-glass.com/research/credentials-gap/
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