Even before COVID-19 forced the likelihood of online college this fall, many American high school students were considering a pause between walking the stage at graduation and decorating their college dorm rooms. Though still not as common as in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Israel, the number of gap-year students in the U.S. has steadily increased over the past several years.
“We tend to be on a fast track in America,” explains Rae Nelson, Gap Year Association (GYA) board member and co-author of “The Gap Year Advantage.” “But understanding the purpose of gap years as an intentional year of exploring and maturing with the goal of going to college is catching on,” Nelson says.
The Gap Year Advantage
Currently in the U.S., about 40 percent of or nearly two million students who enter college each year do not stay to earn a degree, with the majority of those dropping out during or after their freshman year. By contrast, research reported by the GYA shows that U.S. students who have taken a gap year graduate from college at a higher rate and also earn a higher grade point average than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college.
Erin Arucar, GYA alumni representative, explains why this might be the case: “Students who start college after a gap year tend to come in with more focus and lots of personal and professional growth, so the context for what they study is more real and the value of what they’re paying for is more appreciated.” Gil J. Villanueva, Associate Vice President & Dean of Admission at the University of Richmond, agrees. “Those who pursue gap years tend to be more mature and focused on their educational goals when they matriculate.”
Reasons for taking a gap year are as varied as the ways in which students spend it. Some students are burned out from the fast track of academics and extracurricular activities and are seeking an opportunity to explore other interests. Some need time to mature or develop additional life skills. Working through health or mental challenges or earning money to help pay for college are other common motivators. Pre-pandemic, global adventure was another common reason and offered an even greater opportunity for students to cut the cord and gain independence. Some students take a gap year after having spent some time in college, recognizing that they weren’t quite ready to tackle the full college academic and life experience.
Gap Year Success Stories
Wilson High School (D.C.) alums Julia Carroll-Cabanes and her twin brother Alex knew how fond their dad was of his own gap year experience, leading them to design gap years of their own. “We were required to have a work component or some sort of enriching experience, not just go off and travel and do whatever,” Julia says. While her brother participated in a structured language program in Taiwan, Julia first worked her way through New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia and Thailand, securing varied jobs through Workaway and earning income or at least room and board. For the second half, she worked as an au pair in Spain while studying Arabic and taking rowing classes.
Julia is proud of her gap year, which she took prior to entering Barnard, where she studied political science and human rights. “I learned soft skills that made me more successful in school, such as how to be in uncomfortable situations, adapt to new circumstances and to manage situations on my own,” she says. “Those are things students don’t realize they need for college until they get there.”
While on her gap year, Rose Miller of Warrenton, Va. discovered her interest in Chinese, which she began studying at Middlebury last fall. “My younger self would have scorned taking a gap year,” she says. “But I was very burnt out from high school and going right into another round of academic study immediately would not have benefited me.” Rose spent the first semester working on the hospitality staff at the Northern Ireland Peace Center, where she lived in a dorm community with volunteers from all over the world. After spending the winter holidays at home, she traveled to a rural village in Northern India to teach English. “Having to keep the kids engaged taught me how to be patient and motivating,” she says. “It was immeasurable how much the experience gave me, and I realized that there’s not one path that everyone has to take.”
Planning a Productive Gap Year
The paths students can choose for their gap year are practically infinite, with professionals recommending a few key components of any year. “An intentional gap year will have service to others, some fun that you’re interested in and something that helps you grow in some way,” Arucar suggests. “It’s gone well beyond the stereotype of backpacking through Europe.” When reviewing gap year applicants, Villanueva looks for students who have sound plans that allow for further growth, wellness and some fun. Earning income so that students at least partially support themselves is also viewed favorably. He adds that it is very important for students who are choosing gap years after being admitted to college to fully understand their college deferral policies, as some may deny gap year plans, restrict coursework taken at other institutions and/or have deferment fees. As for costs, many gap year programs do offer scholarships or are eligible for payment by 529 college plans. An increasing number, such as Verto Education, offer some sort of transferrable academic credit, though students should be careful to make sure any earned credits will be transferrable, as this varies by school.
With All These Advantages, Why Aren’t Gap Years More Common?
“Gap year is not for everybody,” Nelson says. “The ‘why’ has to be determined upfront, and the student has to be motivated to do it.” A major concern of parents, and often of students, is that the student won’t return to college. But Nelson cites research that shows 90 percent of kids return to college after a gap year, and they return with greater motivation and increased interest in how their education connects with the real world. “They also typically graduate in less time and are more engaged while on the college campus,” she adds.
The uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has increased interest in gap years, but program professionals warn that a gap year should not happen just by default. “COVID is straddling that line of people who are simply falling into a gap year rather than being intentional about it,” Aucar says. But for those opting for a gap year during the pandemic, programs are actively adjusting to restrictions by expanding their domestic and online gap year options that incorporate cross-cultural exchange and a new wave of creative collaborations. Nelson recommends families interested in researching a potential gap year reach out and talk to other families whose student has taken one, as well as engaging a gap year counselor to help with the planning.