College Students, Skip A Year And Make It Matter. Parents & Universities— Help Them Do It
Robert C. Wolcott Contributor
I explore business, leadership and humanity in our technological age.
Given my university teaching roles over the past 20 years, friends with children in college have been querying: do you think campuses will open in the fall? Should our kids return to campus?
Some schools like Texas A&M and University of Texas have announced plans to re-open, though even that could change. No one knows for sure.
Rather than fretting about where the kids should live this fall, consider the fundamental personal objective of education— to help your kids live better lives, now and throughout their futures.
I have an unorthodox (heretical?) solution: skip the 2020-2021 academic year— but make darn sure to make it matter. (NOTE: The perspective herein is my own and does not represent the position of any of the universities with which I am affiliated.)
Let your school worry about when to re-open. For your family, obviate the problem. Skip campus this fall and return post-crisis. Challenge your young adult to create a thoughtful, proactive plan for personal, professional, intellectual development. Then make the plan happen.
Do you think that any potential employer, admissions officer or investor in the future will ask “gee, why’d you fall off the career wagon in 2020?” Everyone’s 2020 is a mess. Make the best of it. GO BIG and go home… or wherever best for your development.
Your 2020 Life Development Year (LDY)
There are few investments better than education. I’m not suggesting you forego a degree. I’m recommending you resolve near-term uncertainty and advance your life in new ways. This is far more than a ‘gap year.’
Let’s call it your Life Development Year (LDY). Start with what you most want to learn, what will keep you motivated for a semester or year without the structure of campus life. What subjects most intrigue you? Which global challenges provoke your concern? Is there an industry or profession you could get into? These are a few candidates for your LDY.
Don’t worry about what you’ll do ‘the rest of your life’. Few really have any idea in college. (Few have better ideas when they’re 50.) Prioritize what you’d love to explore intellectually, professionally and socially. (Use your LDY to build social capital.)
After you’ve identified learning objectives, define how you’ll advance them. What’s online? Who qualified might be willing to offer advice or work with you on something relevant? What’s available from your university?
Be clear— I’m NOT advising truancy. Work with your institution to support the ‘sabbatical’. Do your best to get an explicit pass. Don’t get caught in some Kafka-esque administrative fail.
It’s a great time to advocate for alternatives with universities. Other questions they’re fielding include, “everything’s online—why don’t we get a (BIG) discount?,” or, “I want my money back.”
The rumble among parents is hot these days. They’re watching kids linger on screens for thousands of dollars a week. They’re exploring other options.
Higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough reports that, based on surveys of 2,000 current and college-bound students, four-year colleges might face a loss of up to 20 percent in fall enrollment. 10% of college-bound seniors report already having made other plans.
Universities, It’s Yours To Win— Or Lose
As I argued last month in Forbes, COVID foisted everyone across the Digital Rubicon. While universities have heroically ported their courses online in a matter of weeks, most remain woefully unprepared for our virtual future. Despite leading individual faculty (Mohan Sawhney at Kellogg and Scott Galloway at NYU, for instance) and a few stand outs like Harvard and Purdue, most institutions have taken only tentative steps.
Kellogg Professor Mohan Sawhney moderates a panel at TWIN Global 2018 in Chicago.
Leverage the crisis to do rapid experimentation at scale. Show students and parents you’re leading with purpose for their benefit.
Consider offering a rigorous, facilitated off-campus development year— a template for a student’s semester or year of growth. If even a few students avail the offer, they’ll progress and make physical distancing easier back on campus.
Study aboard, independent study and cooperative work programs provide hints as to how such programs might function. Deans and administrators, you’ve proven your institutions can move courses online in a flash. Harness that energy for more.
As wonderful as college campuses can be— my home overlooks Northwestern University’s, one of the world’s best— the residential experience isn’t the primary rationale for stratospheric university rates. Anyone can take kids off parents’ hands for $100,000 per year. The value is professional, social and –hopefully — intellectual and ethical development. Your campus isn’t even close to your highest value resource. Look to your faculty, research, alumni network, educational expertise and brand.
Willing faculty members could advise students through their LDY. Advising on their intellectual development plan, connecting them with resources, reviewing academic output. I bet you’ll find (some) faculty eager to explore new ways to engage their educational mission.
Mobilize your alumni. Many would love to contribute, but don’t know how beyond speeches and donations. They can offer mentorship, industry access, webinars and project opportunities curated with faculty and administrators. They’ll muster to alma mater’s cause and enhance their own commitment to the school. Your students and their parents will recognize your institution as far more than online classes and tuition checks.
With a bit of guidance, students might discover even more about themselves and their futures than if they’d remained on well-trodden paths. My colleague, serial entrepreneur and education innovator Howard Tullman explains, “It doesn’t sound exciting to tell kids to study English. Tell ‘em you’ll teach them how to write a screenplay— now you’ve got their attention. Same with math. No one needs algebra, but a budget for your new entrepreneurial business is something cool to work on.”
Serial entrepreneur, investor and education innovator Howard Tullman and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
To New Horizons— Better Together
Parents— you have the right to demand more, but approach this as a partnership. Consider the catastrophic challenges COVID presents for many schools. The vast majority of faculty and administrators believe in their school’s mission and strive to serve.
Universities— if you offer an LDY-like program, make sure you offer a serious discount to tuition. Respect the trauma many families face. They’ll recognize you for it.
There’s a bigger opportunity here. People of many ages might be willing to pay for a year of life development rigorously developed, facilitated and endorsed by a credible institution.
The traditional 4-year residential model will be with us for a while longer, but it will be challenged, modified, complemented and threatened by a breadth of credible alternatives. Many schools won’t survive the next decade. Given the ‘old college try’, some institutions will discover how to lead in our emerging virtual world.
Meanwhile, many students might find the LDY option inspiring. That’s a resource we all need to live our best possible lives.