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Delaying college is a good idea

By Sarah Corlett Longstaff
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 19, 1999
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To the editor,

I would like to take issue with university President Peter Likens' statement that freshman dropout should be regarded as an institutional failure and that students who drop out do so for what he implies are inconsequential personal reasons that they should weigh against "the educational value added by the university."

It seems that this sentiment is shared by other university presidents as well. However, I feel that this attitude is actually a disservice to students.

I question Likins' and other university presidents' motives by tying retention rates to institution success. There seems to be some sort of ulterior motive - perhaps student body size determines the amount of funding given to the university by the state legislature?

In any case, this attitude may be good from a PR and fundraising point of view, but from the point of view of many students it is shortsighted.

First of all, Likins' attitude values academic learning over all other learning. In reality, a lot of one's most important learning goes on in society, outside of academia.

Secondly, it is important to take into consideration that going to university right after high school is not the best decision for many students. Most college freshman have spent at least 12 years in compulsory schooling, where their every move was monitored by teachers, parents, and peers. The social pressure to go to college right after high school is enormous. So many students go, and then flounder around wasting their time because they don't know what they want to do yet.

I went to college right after high school. At the end of sophomore year I was supposed to pick a major, so I did, by default. Since graduation, however, I haven't done a single thing with my degree. Instead I tried a little of this, a little of that, and now, nine years later, I'm back in graduate school, having finally found something that I really want to do.

I often feel that my undergraduate education was "wasted," and I wonder how things would have been different if I had taken time off between high school and college.

My sister did do exactly that. She lasted at college for one week before she called up some friends to come and rescue her. My parents were furious, but my sister stuck to her decision. She lived on her own, working as a nanny and taking classes at community college. After a few years, she found her calling, and is now a very successful pediatric intensive care nurse at a top teaching hospital.

My youngest brother is now 18 and will graduate from high school this May. My sister and I have been advising him to follow in her footsteps, not mine: Move out of our parent's house, find a roommate or two, get a real job, take classes at community college, and go to a university when he knows what he wants to do.

I have some other young friends who have done such diverse things as work on a sheep ranch in Scotland, au pair in Europe, try for a job on the Louisiana oil rigs, or be a cowboy here in Arizona. All these experiences are invaluable, and they are all learning experiences. Especially for middle class suburban white kids, like me and my family, getting out and seeing the real world and how other people live is a much better learning experience than reading about these things in books in the cocoon of an American university.

Most American families cannot afford to send their kids on a year-long European tour, but they can encourage their children to explore the different styles of life of people in our own country. And to deny that these are learning experiences is very short-sighted.

In sum, it is my feeling that high school graduates should be encouraged to take time off before going to college. To minimize this powerful learning experience and to devalue it by implying that these things don't measure up to the university experience is simply wrong and a disservice to students.

If they are smart and were "meant" to go to college, they'll come back: with clear goals and commitment and a stronger motivation to succeed. And when I become a university professor and teach these students, I'll definitely feel a twinge of jealousy. So it's time for Likins and others to stop putting fundraising concerns ahead of supporting individual students in what's best for them.

Sarah Corlett Longstaff
Graduate student
Departments of Linguistics and Anthropology