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How to Build Beneficial Detours to Smooth the Road to College

Last month, as part of The Chronicle’s series on reinventing college, I suggested that the United States needs more structured, maturing experiences for high-school graduates to ease their path to college. The column generated dozens of comments, mostly in support of the idea.

Now it’s time for the hard part: How would we build such detours on the way to college? Which entities would take the lead in building them? And what are the hurdles to making the concept viable?

Plenty of models for alternative pathways already exist, except nearly all of them are geared exclusively toward easing the transition from college to the work world. The one with perhaps the highest profile is Teach For America, which places recent college graduates as teachers in struggling schools. Last year nearly 48,000 graduates applied for just 5,200 slots in the program.

Taking a page from the success of Teach for America is another new endeavor for the post-college crowd: Venture for America. It places recent college graduates in start-up companies for two years in smaller cities across the country. Some 50 graduates were placed this year in the program’s inaugural class.

While Teach for American and Venture for America are good models, they unfortunately cannot be simply transplanted to serve high-school graduates, even if those 18-year-olds are bound for college. One option for even the younger crowd that I recently discovered is the Millennial Trains Project.

It plans to run three transcontinental train journeys across the United States in 2013. Each 10-day journey will carry 100 members of the so-called Millennial generation, along with 20 mentors, staff, and journalists. The group will travel by night and stop during the day at 10 towns along the way, where they will tour local model businesses and play host to community workshops on the train platform.

“Our hope is that the Millennials will come away with an appreciation for the country, a sense of the grand opportunities and challenges we face, and perhaps scale ideas from one place to another,” says Patrick Dowd, who leads the nonprofit project.

Of course, we can’t count on nonprofits, the government, or private businesses to build all of those transitional activities. Higher ed needs to play a role, too, by working with high schools to blend the transition between high school and college.

Such a blended experience would have high-school students use their senior year more productively to gain college credits or hold apprenticeships to try out careers. Instead of rushing off to college in the fall, students would participate in structured experiences, either full-time paid internships where they would work alongside adults of all ages, or national service where they would be exposed to different types of work and parts of the country.

Students can stay on track for college and pay the bills by getting academic credit and money for that work. Massive open online courses (or MOOC’s) allow students to get academic experience even if they lack the time to take a class on a local campus. Colleges that would offer such blended options—or “gap semesters” or “gap years”—could also form federations that would allow students to take courses away from what would eventually become their home campus.

After four months or a year away, they would ease into college more sure of where they were going and why they were headed there.

The hurdles to higher ed’s building such detours into the college pathway are enormous, of course. The systems of financial aid and academic credit are largely built around the time spent in a classroom seat. And then there are the cultural hurdles: The Hollywood vision of college begins three months after high-school graduation and lasts four years.

What’s more, colleges might see creating those detours as competition. What if the students decided through an apprenticeship that a particular job was a better fit for them now than college?

But students already see the path through college as a swirl rather than a straight line. Faced with rising tuition and new ways of accessing a higher education, the next generation of students will be even more likely to consider different ways to and through college. Having higher ed help create such pathways might, in the end, improve the country’s degree-completion rates and better serve our human capital needs in the future.

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