Until a few short years ago, the gap year was a British tradition – when a high school graduate spends a year before going off to college to pursue an interest or to work on a humanitarian project in another part of the world – we in America had only heard or read about. Then, ever so slowly, the idea took hold here among the wealthy. The coronavirus pandemic, however, made taking a gap year a realistic, even practical, option for students if school campuses aren’t going to be open in the fall.
An organization called Mind the Gap, was founded by Abby Brody to address the range of shortcomings in higher education and as a result of the need to bridge the chasm between what students learn in school and life skills they need in the real world. Its 15-week semester, called LIFE READY Program, will launch in September this year.
Brody expands on this via email, “The cracks in the traditional path of higher education have turned into more extensive and exposed gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been studying the crisis in higher education for the past two years and the research is clear: gap year students have an advantage (in school and life), but this advantage has previously been for the privileged – we are changing this in real time. In being passionate about our mission we realized quickly we were on to something huge when the A-list of educators jumped (and continue to jump) at the chance to be a part of our team.
“We all share the spirit that gap semesters/years must be part of the narrative of education for all, and that means beyond the elite. Going directly to college and making the large financial commitment required may not be in the best interest of all students, irrespective of their financial means. At Mind the Gap we know it’s scary to step off the hamster wheel of our country’s established education system, but, alone especially, it’s just not serving most best. Having the gift of time and experience beyond the walls of a classroom is an outsized advantage. LIFE READY, our gap year program is step one in our journey to create alternative pathways that allow our youth to find happiness and success. It is no longer one size fits all.”
Continues Brody, “We think it is an absurd expectation to think that high school graduates are ready to pick a major or make the most of this experience from the current K-12 education. How can they? Life, up to this point, has been ‘school, after school, homework.’ Repeat. They study, they take a test, they forget. Repeat. And school alone reflects little of the reality of life.
“COVID did not create the issues we are seeing in higher education today, but it has absolutely put a bright spotlight on it and accelerated change (and, but many, understanding and acceptance of that change). Parents and students should be questioning the ‘path’ of our education system. The student debt crisis is very real. The workplace of tomorrow is different than today and the skills required no longer fit in ‘majors.’ We are being challenged to think differently and not all march down a singular path that has less than ideal outcomes for many. Our youth and the world need better, now more than ever.”
“We are the first gap year program created by education researchers and experts with the proper lens for filling the systemic gaps between school and life,” Brody declares. “As mentioned, we have extensively studied the ‘why’ students are failing for the past two years and as a team have decades of experience working with this age group. Our team is the best of the best and has a track record of creating successful startups in the education space. David Dunbar, lead curriculum designer, created City Term, one of the most transformative educational experiences. Ivan Cestero, Clair Sellers, and I were founding members of Avenues: The World School. Our work at Avenues was to rethink K-12 education. We’ve done it before, we are doing it again – and in a major way.”
The course being offered by Mind the Gap, however, has a hefty price tag of $5,000 per semester, which could be a major deterrent for the many families who are financially strapped and are the most adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are planning in early July to add a variety of a-la-carte options for, say, the devoted gymnast who is using her gap semester to focus first on that, and second on becoming life ready,” says Brody. “We are realists, and we get that this new, new world does not offer only binaries. In addition, we are considering, based primarily on early indications of interest, offering second and third cohorts during the first semester starting in a staggered manner as we have capped our registration at 300 persons and while the quality of programming and experience is paramount, we feel we can bring that plus offer more broadly the curriculum to those who might have a bit different timing and/or needs.
“Further, we are expecting to open up registration via sponsorships/scholarships in time for Fall 2020 so that we are accessible by virtually anyone who has graduated high school in the past five years who really wants in! For our LIFE SET academies (which will launch in the future), our recipe is simple. Value of degree costs less than the degree.”
“This is not school,” clarifies Brody. “While we could partner with a community college like others have, it’s always at an additional cost and we don’t want to walk away from our mission that is student focused. And we don’t just want to bring college bound students into our program. At Mind the Gap we are okay saying out loud that college does not serve everyone. Our graduates may go straight into the workforce or go into a vocational setting.”
“We will be leveraging a collaborative learning platform called jigsaw,” Brody explains. “This platform is not a lecture platform like how most distant learning is looking online with ‘Zoom’ class. Our platform allows ‘Fellows’ to customize their screen to have documents, videos, chats and live speaker views at the same time. We chose this platform as it facilitates collaborative work which we value and mirrors how we think.
“Most work is live on this platform. There will be pre-recorded videos for life hacks, but these are interviews with professionals in the field. No lectures. We are anti lecture! We know based on brain science that we learn through stories and the act of doing, not passive listening. So all of our videos are narratives of professionals in the field telling their stories. How they got where they are.”
Adds Brody, “The LIFE READY program is always in the now. We plan on changing every semester to meet the need of the day. Therefore this fall we will touch on public policy and governance inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. We also use our student ambassadors to pilot our thinking wanting to make sure that we are choosing topics of interest. The course topics are less important to us. We use the topics to teach the meta skills of the workforce: critical thinking, etc. all topics this fall are taught through an impact lens as impact is core to the ideals of Gen Z!”
The whole rationale behind Mind the Gap is to teach students lessons and skills not being provided by institutions of higher learning and is not to be confused as a means to get hired by the organizations they partner with. Elucidates Brody, “We think ‘Fellow-First’ and believe in their personal journey. The gap space should be purely about that, a time to discover who you are and where you want to go. While we will have partnerships with companies as part of the curriculum, it is not with the lens of future employment.
“However, company partnerships will play a huge role in our LIFE SET academies that we are launching in the future. These will be vocational settings and we hope to create these academies in careers that are not being served by the current higher education system. For us, that equation is simple. If the cost of a degree is less than the market value of the degree then that vocation is not being served by traditional four-year institutions. A great example is teaching! We have a teacher shortage in the United States because of this reality.
“Our plan (and words we live by, too) starting with Gap, is: Life Ready, Set, Go. LIFE READY (gap time), LIFE SET (vocational education for vocations not served by current four-year institutions), LIFE GO (ongoing professional development and networking).”
Only two years ago, educators and counselors believed that a four-year college degree was worth being in debt for – because the alternative was not viable for a balanced life. (Read related article here) It’s ironic that the coronavirus pandemic, which upended life as we know it, is also fortuitously uprooting long-practiced models of how we prepare students for life beyond the classroom.