3 Ways Colleges Can Build a Bridge for Future Leaders

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Source: Ashoka

Editor's note: This is the third post in a series which highlights some of the most high-impact and replicable innovations in social entrepreneurship education through the eyes of the 2013 Ashoka U- Cordes Innovation Award Winners. This post was co-written by Abby Falik, Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, and Noam Unger, Global Citizen Year’s Vice President for Partnerships and External Affairs. 

The 21st century poses looming challenges that will surely tax the talents of our future leaders across business, government and civil society. And since the quality of tomorrow’s leadership is tied to the quality of today’s education system, there is good reason for concern.

Graduating high schoolers are entering college underprepared, or so over-prepared by the high-pressure race to “get in” that they’re burned out by the time they step foot on campus.

Families, burdened by the high price of college, are questioning their return on investment.

Colleges and universities are faced with very real concerns about drop-out rates—which are higher in America than anywhere else in the developed world.

These realities speak to underlying concerns about cost, access, relevance, and the quality of learning. It is important to take a step back and ask, “What do today’s students need to know, and how do we re-design the system around THAT?” If key ingredients of success in a global economy include self-awareness, cross-cultural perspectives, personal grit, and an entrepreneurial mindset, how should that shift our thinking about what else young people need to learn—and the way they learn it?

At Global Citizen Year, we believe that a bridge year after high school is an extraordinary opportunity to unleash the potential of a new generation of leaders. The term “bridge year” is a more apt description than “gap year” because, contrary to the notion of a year off, we see the value of an educational pathway for youth that fully incorporates a year of intensive learning not only about the world but also about themselves.

We have learned that with the right curriculum, American students who spend a good part of a year fully immersed in developing and emerging market countries can gain the perspective and skills necessary to succeed in college and careers in a global economy. They are pushed far outside their comfort zones where they get a different view of pressing global problems they will need to understand as leaders. They learn another language while also learning at a deeper level that other cultures have much to teach us. They are challenged to understand a very different community. They do all this while making positive contributions alongside new friends at the local level. Notably, Global Citizen Year’s model is structured with access and financial aid in mind, so that promising talent from all socioeconomic levels can participate.

All of this directly relates to higher education because such a formative experience in the year after graduating high school increases the value of college. Students walk onto campus motivated and more mature, bringing burning questions to the classroom and a budding spirit of social entrepreneurship to their community. This opportunity is currently overlooked in our culture, but colleges and universities can play a big role in changing that. Some already are.

Here are 3 steps colleges can take to embrace the global bridge year:

1) Promote the Concept: While the vast majority of colleges allow deferral for a bridge year, recognizing a positive impact on individual students and their surrounding student body, most institutions of higher education need to shift to a far more active stance. An increasing number of colleges are trying to get ahead of the curve by encouraging applicants to defer for a bridge year. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a competitive Global Gap Year Fellowship to its incoming students. Princeton has created its own fully funded bridge year program. Harvard and Middlebury College, among others, offer examples of how admissions offices can feature related encouragement on their websites. To lead the field and reap the benefits of super-charged students from diverse backgrounds, undergraduate institutions could also develop preferential admissions policies—essentially turning the global bridge year into an advisable prequalification.

2) Confer Credit: A bridge year abroad does not have to mean deferring college. Students can earn academic credit for language study, field work and distance seminars directly informed by their concurrent experience. For example, Global Citizen Year and The New School launched such a partnership in 2012. Participants go through Global Citizen Year’s intensive 10-month leadership training program and they simultaneously complete assignments designed by The New School faculty. The joint program allows students to earn up to a year of college credit, placing them on track to begin their on-campus college experience as sophomores. (To learn more see this Ashoka blog on Forbes by Stephanie Browner, Dean of Eugene Lang College at The New School.)

3) Provide Tuition Incentives: Domestically, over 100 colleges and universities provide scholarships to AmeriCorps alumni, and City Year has set up tuition scholarships for their alumni with more than a dozen undergraduate institutions through its Give a Year partnerships program. To attract diverse students with high potential and broader perspectives, colleges could build on these affordability initiatives to attract global bridge year participants. For example, Global Citizen Year Fellows who go on to Dickinson College are eligible to get $10,000 knocked off their tuition through the college’s public service fellowships.

Beyond operating a bridge year program, Global Citizen Year is working with higher education institutions to pave a new path to learning—college administrators, faculty, students, and alumni all have key roles to play in driving these changes. We are also working through the media to change perspectives, through government to change public policy, and through our own alumni to change the leadership pipeline.

The result will be a paradigm shift that affects us all. It will transform education and prepare a broader segment of our next generation to be empathetic and entrepreneurial problem solvers who will lead with purpose to tackle our toughest challenges.