Gap years. Just like good chocolate and affordable healthcare, gap years (or a year taken off between high school and college) are something the United States is sorely lacking.
Studying abroad in the UK last semester, I met all sorts of other international students from a variety of places. And amidst all their differences, there was one similarity between them all: They were older than me.
Some by just one year while others were a few years older. Many of us were in the same year, so why was I the youngest? Turns out many of them had taken a gap year(s). Some were an au pair in a foreign country while others gained valuable work experience and saved up money.
For me, it was a very new concept to not go straight to university after high school. I know of only two of my classmates who took a year off before college. Both were met with incessant questions and doubts. As I learned more about taking time for yourself before higher education, I have deduced several theories of why taking a gap year can benefit you as well as your future education.
You have a vision.
Taking a break from the education system, gives you some time out in the real world to really think about what you want to do. Maybe you got an internship to see if you could fit into a certain industry. Maybe you had more time to see what potential careers could suit you. Either way, you didn't start university undecided like I did; and you definitely didn't change your major several times, making graduation an even further speck on the horizon.
You see the value in education.
It's possible that you spent your year off working in a horrendous entry-level job. In my experience, it is when you are working a passionless, repetitive job that you become the most motivated to become educated, more motivated to receive higher education and move up in the workplace. High schoolers have been stuck in the classroom since they were five. As soon as they graduate, they are burnt out and tired from so many years trudging through the system. Many go to college and soon drop out because they just weren't ready.
You learn about the world.
Every student I talked to while outside of the U.S. told me that they were encouraged to work abroad, to travel, and to experience life outside their country's borders. I strongly believe that we as Americans also need to do this. As a nation, I feel that we do not have a firm understanding of the rest of the world simply because we limit ourselves to our borders and our way of thinking. Travel should be encouraged because of its capacity to broaden perspectives and open minds as well as hearts.
You get to know yourself.
See who you are outside of the classroom and have more time to discover your passions. How can you be expected to choose your career path at 17? One year really can make all the difference. We are constantly and rapidly changing for the first few years out of high school, why not mature a little more before going to college? Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
It is with these thoughts that I look fondly upon the European education system. Education can be one of the many keys to success, but it does not have to be a race to the finish line (i.e., diploma).