While it is common and popular for high school seniors to begin a journey to college. many would be better off taking a detour through a gap year. A gap year, according to the Princeton (NJ)-based Center for Interim Programs, is a focused, finite period of time in which an individual deliberately takes a break from his or her current academic or professional path in order to explore other interests and skills.
Until recently, I’d believed that students who take a gap year pursued only one opportunity during that time. I was told that I was wrong. Students who take the gap year might take part in two, maybe three different experiences, according to Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs.
If the gap year was divided into quarters, for example, a student might take on a summer job, learn a new language, work for a community service organization or take on an internship with a sponsoring employer outside of the United States. Since 1980, the Center for Interim Programs has worked with over 6,000 students who chose to take on a gap year.
A gap year offers several advantages between high school and college that include:
- It addresses the potential burnout from more than 12 years of schooling;
- It helps students to create their own life and choices for a year;
- It connects the relevancy of classroom studies to the real world;
- It enables students to return to interests that were forfeited due to academic demands;
- It helps students to develop greater maturity, confidence, independence, and life skills;
- It allows students to gain a clearer sense of college studies and/or career path; and
- It makes them more compelling college and/or job candidates.
Holly went through these advantages with me when we talked in her office. She also shared her own experiences having taken a gap year between her senior year in high school and her freshman year at the University of Virginia. Holly also mentioned studies conducted at Colorado College as well as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that provided evidence of greater student achievement, including stronger academic records, from students who stepped out of school to go on a gap year. It was possible to understand why. The students who returned to school had a better sense of direction and had already been forced to take responsibility for their actions.
Would I recommend a gap year to a high school senior?
For some, probably yes. If they have a passion to pursue as well as the finances to pursue it.
I run into high school students who prefer hands-on work to the classroom. My sister-in-law advises a high school robotics club. In the club there are students who want to study electrical engineering or computer science. At least they think that they do. Some are passionate about the mechanics or the programming of their robots and work while others watch.
The ones who watch could benefit from time working under closer supervision of a machinist or an engineer to find out if they truly want to be in a technical field. It might be better to put them in a gap year experience where they see technology used in the real world before they try to tackle college-level math and science classes. They could pursue a gap year experience that combines tutorials with an apprenticeship or service opportunity around science and technology.
There are also students who have less scientific passions such as politics. A recent high school graduate, for example, can become engaged in the political process quite easily, especially if s/he wants to volunteer. The upcoming presidential election cycle will probably offer more opportunities to young volunteers of all political viewpoints than ever before, especially if several candidates remain in contention for the Republican nomination into the spring. Learning how to engage voters, solicit money, talk up the merits of a candidate, or organize a campaign event are all invaluable experiences, even for people who later decide not to continue in the political process. It is not uncommon for young people who start as volunteers to move up into paid positions, even if they have not yet turned 20. It is also not uncommon in politics for young people, paid or unpaid, to have few expenses of their own while working on behalf of a candidate. Food and a place to sleep are likely to be covered during a major campaign, although the food is not the healthiest nor the accommodations luxurious.
The financial questions that would likely arise in considering how to fund a gap year could be considered in a different way. Suppose the freshman year of college for a resident student living on campus at a flagship state university costs between $10,000 and $16,000 in tuition and fees, plus another $10,000 to $15,000 for room and board. This is $20,000 to $31,000 that can be partially covered through scholarships, though most schools such as Penn State or Rutgers offer merit awards to a very small subset of the class.
For a student who is totally undecided on a major, who has not previously displayed passion in any possible career through school, a hobby, extracurricular activities or a part-time job, this money could be considered “at risk.” If that student fails to find an academic direction that at least allows him to return as a sophomore, that money has essentially been wasted. The gap year experience might be a more practical, and possibly a less expensive, investment. This is especially true if a portion of the gap year experience can be covered through a stipend or paid employment.
Planning the gap year can be a challenging as considering a college major as well as the careers it could lead to after graduation. Professionals such as Holly Bull have the experience of vetting gap year programs and helping students to plan the gap year. However, this experience is rare in school counseling circles. The Center for Interim Programs offers a free 90-minute consultation that will provide some direction; its principals have also addressed school counselors on how to help their students. If I were contacted by families interested in the gap year experience I would refer them to Holly et al. I invite interested readers to contact her offices to get started.