What America can learn from Israel about adulthood

In the U.S., about 70% of high school graduates enroll in college right after they graduate. Among those students, only 59% will graduate with a college degree within six years of entering college.

In Israel they do things a little differently. After high school, all men and women are required to serve in the Israeli military- men for three years, women for two. There are exceptions to compulsory service such as for religious reasons or if a woman is a mother to young children. But still, over 80% of those conscripted serve.

After their service is complete, traveling is a rite of passage. Many Israelis will take simple jobs such as in restaurants or in private security after their service to earn additional money, and then Israelis explore the world. When they return in their early to mid-twenties, just then do Israelis enter university. Israelis have the oldest median age of college graduate among OECD countries, with a median age over 27 years old. But does all that waiting discourage Israelis from going to school? Not at all. In fact Israel has the fourth highest rate of bachelor degree attainment in the developed world, with nearly half of all Israeli adults attaining a postsecondary degree.

Israel’s resulting economic successes speak for themselves. Israel has the second largest number of companies on the NASDAQ of any nation around the world, trailing only the United States. And as Dan Senor and Saul Singer reporting in their book, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, “In 2008, per capita venture capital investments in Israel were 2.5 times greater than in the United States and more than 30 times greater than in Europe… Israel’s economy has also grown faster than the average for developed economies of the world in most years since 1995.” So what is Israel doing right?

Obviously no single factor can explain the incredible success of an entire economy, but the Israeli model certainly demonstrates some clear advantages. For one, since students enter college after years of real world experience and often extensive travel, they have a better sense of who they are, what they want to do, and enter college with a greater sense of purpose. Drinking away your college experience and failing to graduate on time because of too much partying isn’t a real problem in Israel like it is in the U.S. Students enter college with a clearer sense of their professional goals and they have the maturity to work towards them.

Too often in the U.S., students enter college because it’s the predetermined next step, even though they have no idea what they want to do with their lives, where their aptitudes lie, or what the world is like outside their community. But for many high school graduates, if you don’t want to go to college right away, there may be limited opportunities available to you. Finding meaningful work can be challenging, and many can’t afford to travel, take a gap year, or even take an unpaid internship that might help them gain insight into the professional world. Joining the military offers an alternative for many, but may not be the right fit for everyone.

But another option exists to give high school graduates an opportunity to learn more about themselves and their world, while serving their country. The U.S. could adopt the practice of having students take a service year (or two) during which they would take positions within their communities- or around the country- and work completing community service projects or working for participating nonprofit organizations during which they would earn a modest stipend and earn educational awards for college. The benefits would be numerous. Students would have an opportunity to take productive time off from school and gain work experience in a field they may be interested in pursuing. In exchange, they would earn money to help offset high tuition costs, and might get a better sense of what they want to do with their lives. With both experience and additional years on them, students could enter college with greater focus and maturity. Moreover, the nation would benefit from the huge surge in community involvement and low cost labor.

Instituting a service year would be a huge cultural shift, but the evidence is there to suggest that the impacts could be tremendously positive for both individuals participating and the country at large. Israel has benefited greatly from its more mature student population and clearly has not been held back by the delay in students entering postsecondary education. In the U.S., our need for higher education reform is so badly needed, as is the revitalization of our communities. Encouraging a service year could get right at the heart of what this country needs.

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