Taking a break between high school and college, or in the middle of your studies, is tempting. After all, the learning process can be hard, and exhausting. But the times we are in call for caution when it comes to any delays in education.
That is, extra caution on top of the careful planning anyone should make before considering their next steps when it comes to the essential process of learning.
Of course, we know that the traditional college experience immediately after high school is not for everybody. While most good jobs today require education beyond high school and a high-quality credential of some kind, there are many ways to do that.
I wrote about one way that delays in enrollment take place via so-called “gap years” during the pandemic. In the moment, many students considered taking a break from their often-unsatisfying remote classes. The circumstances have changed, but the underlying realities of delayed enrollment remain: Many students lack the money, flexibility, or family support to make it work.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. For example, I am an advocate of service year programs that combine service, earning, and some kind of credit for learning. The Service Year Alliance has been doing important work in this area, promoting the idea of a year of paid, full-time service as a common option for all Americans, with opportunities to earn college credits and even certain types of credentials and industry-recognized certifications.
Service years can help young adults develop real-world experience and professional skills, improve their communities, and foster something else we badly need: civic renewal. It is a step toward something that matters to them as individuals, and to our communities—not a step away from the urgent task of building work and life skills through education and training that lead to credentials of value.
As in so many other aspects of life, it is important to take the long view. While the value of a bachelor’s degree varies a lot—depending on the field of study—on average the degree is worth about $2.8 million over the course of a working lifetime. And we’re increasingly seeing programs that provide pathways for people to gain valuable skills that pay off sooner than a BA, while still stacking toward credentials of increasing value.
The key is to keep moving. More than 40 million people have started college and stopped out, and many states are working hard to get them re-enrolled. Research shows that students who delay their enrollment in post-high school learning by a year or more have dramatically higher dropout rates and lower bachelor’s degree completion rates.
There is a wealth of information for families considering their education plans. Among my favorite resources is the Washington Monthly College Guide, which includes a list of “Best Bang for the Buck” colleges offering marketable degrees at affordable prices.
The National Center for Education Statistics can be a great help, as well, with its College Navigator featuring side-by-side comparisons of schools and great tips on financial aid and career advice.
Choosing a field of study also is critical, and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce offers extensive information on the economic value of different majors. Not that money should be the sole factor, but it is worth knowing that the top-paying majors earn $3.4 million more over a lifetime than the lowest-paying majors.
Research and data unquestionably show the tremendous value of education after high school and the importance of starting as soon as possible, and finishing as fast as possible. It is tempting, given the complexities and pressures of life, to look for a break. While that is understandable, we should not settle for a limiting, “either-or” choice between learning and not learning.
Today, many people are finding real satisfaction while learning, earning, and serving at the same time. The best strategies are those that keep learners engaged and focused on achieving their credential without delay. That’s the best path forward for individuals, and for a society that urgently needs to benefit from their developed talents.
This article was originally published in Forbes.