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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Gap Years: Why Most Adults Say, ‘I Wish I’d Done That’

By Ethan Knight & Jennifer Sutherland-Miller — May 31, 2016 7 min read
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I didn’t take a gap year, but in retrospect wish I had—how much would I have learned about the world and grown as a person? It would have been especially relevant as I studied international affairs as an undergrad. Today, Ethan Knight, Executive Director, and Jennifer Sutherland-Miller, Director of Education with the American Gap Association, explain the benefits and logistics of taking a gap year.

For quite some time now, national excitement has been building around gap years, and in the wake of Malia Obama’s May 1 announcement that she will take one, the momentum has only grown. Both students and colleges are recognizing the profound academic and personal benefit to taking an experiential year to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.

Why Take a Gap Year?
From all available data it is clear that gap year programs have profound impacts on young people, including personal growth, academic attainment, and post-college success. The two most common reasons students cite for taking a gap year are (1) “burnout from the pressures of getting into college” and (2) “a desire to know more about myself.” Increasingly, the achievement bar has gone up for the most competitive colleges, forcing students into a relentless flurry of performance for the sake of college. It’s no great surprise then, that the second most common reason would represent a deeper pursuit of self-alignment, because we all know that chasing another’s dreams is a great way to fail at your own.

In support, data from several studies have shown that students who take a gap year return to college at a rate of 90 percent within a year and pursue their studies with renewed focus. There are significant academic benefits to the gap year as demonstrated by over performance on GPAs and a shorter path to graduation as compared to non-gap peers. The average student will change majors 3-5 times in college, contributing to an average graduation time of six years—and that doesn’t even factor for the almost 40 percent of students who simply never complete any college degree. By contrast, students who have taken a gap year typically graduate in just four years (with a median of 3.75 years!). Plus, over the longer haul, taking a gap year also improves a young person’s employment prospects and boosts civic engagement.

At a more personal level, research is showing that millennials want their work and their lives to matter in this world. What better time is there to explore the world and figure out your place in it than during a gap year before you commit to a career path? Eighty-six percent of students who have taken a gap year report that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their careers once they get there—this indicates that gap year participants have a better sense of what their purpose is in the world.

Safety Concerns
Many parents have concerns about the safety of their child on a gap year. While this is a valid concern, data from the Forum on Education Abroad confirms that students are actually safer on programs in the developing world than they are on college campuses domestically. Our work at the American Gap Association (AGA) is, in part, to help families by vetting organizations according to a robust, 56-page application that incorporates standards from outdoor education, higher education, study abroad, service learning, and others designed to provide as much safety consideration as possible. The AGA accredited programs are among those that have demonstrated a commitment to the safety of “gappers” and have critical reporting requirements to ensure that student safety never becomes an afterthought.

The Cost of a Gap Year and Funding
The costs associated with taking a gap year vary greatly, ranging from experiences that offer a stipend and money toward higher education to programs that are priced equivalent to time spent in college. When it comes to finances, the first stop for students usually is their immediate community, which could include community based organizations, religious groups, friends, family, parents, and even some more inventive fundraising options that can be aided if students plan to volunteer during their gap year.

Most students begin planning (and saving) for their gap years a year or two in advance. Last year $2.8 million in needs-based scholarships were made available through individual programs and some gap year providers are also able to access federal financial aid dollars (FAFSA). Private scholarships, such as Hostelling International’s Explore the World Scholarships, which are being awarded to 61 recipients and are valued at $2,000 each, are another means to funding a gap year experience.

Gap year specialist counselors can help students save money by offering high-quality contacts that provide housing allowances or work-trades, which can significantly offset the cost of the gap year. Although these specialist counselors charge money, they often end up providing a way to stretch dollars and thus are a greater value to the student.

Within the larger context of education, we are increasingly finding that universities are supporting these efforts by giving away scholarships. For example, Florida State University has been at the leading edge of the academic community in valuing the experiential learning that happens on a gap year through deferment policies and a scholarship earmarked specifically for students who have taken one. UNC Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship is another example of a progressive initiative by a public university to help students design an educational and transformative gap year that will support their academic studies and career path moving forward. Warren Wilson College provides $16,000 to gap year graduates who matriculate there, recognizing that these students perform better on campus and in society.

And let’s not forget Malia’s intended university, Harvard, which for a decade now has encouraged newly admitted students to consider taking a gap year. In fact, Harvard has seen a 30% increase in the number of gap year deferrals over the past few years which is certainly adding legitimacy and support to the value of the gap year for parents, students, employers, and of course other colleges.

Gap Year Program Options
Experts, including gap year alumni, recommend beginning the experience with something structured to provide a context within which students can gain skills and build confidence as they subsequently transition to more independence for the latter portions of their gap year.

Examples of AGA-accredited organizations providing structured programs abroad include: Thinking Beyond Borders, combining deep cultural immersion, fieldwork with experts, and engaging readings and discussions; National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), with a focus on leadership and outdoors skills in some of the most awe-inspiring locations in the world; and Pacific Discovery, which offers experiential education programs that are deliberate overland journeys.

For students looking for a domestic program instead, options include: Ridge Mountain Academy, a campus-based academy that focuses on mountain sports, education, and life skills as well as Outward Bound, which offers courses in some of the most spectacular and inspiring settings in the United States. Americorps is another domestic option that provides a well-structured program, paying for the participant’s housing and food for the full year. Those who successfully complete the program are awarded a $5,700 stipend to use towards continuing education.

Gap year counselors can not only help potentially reduce the financial burden, but with their long history in vetting placements and their extensive networks, can provide appropriate structures for student support—especially for students looking to be a bit more independent.

Deferring University Admission to Take a Gap Year

Deferment policies vary greatly and some specify what kind of college credit (if any) they will honor as a result of the gap year. We still encourage students to apply to college, get accepted, and then defer for the gap year—in this way students have an existing plan for college. The American Gap Association has an extensive list of the deferment policies of colleges and universities organized by state.

Students should double check with their particular institution and not be afraid to advocate for themselves by asking for a deferment even if one is not initially offered; the data is on their side in supporting the value of an experiential year “on” between high school and continuing university.

Follow American Gap Association and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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