Taking a Gap Year?

“I’m going to take a year off to work.”

This is a pretty frequent answer one will get when asking high school students what their plans are for college. This “gap year” as it has been called, is something our generation of American students are doing more frequently, and something European students have done more frequently in the past.

30,000 to 40,000 students report taking a gap year each year in American. Even some higher profile young people, such as Malia Obama before her tenure at Harvard, have been reported taking a year off.

This must be a good thing, right? These “independent students” are wanting to take control of their education and learning.

Let’s look at gap years a little closer.


What is a “gap year” and why do people take them?


A gap year is a term referring to taking a year off of college or higher education. This usually occurs the year between high school and college or between undergraduate work and masters work. Occasionally you also have people who take a gap year during their higher educational experience.

Students take gap years for multiple reasons. When a group of students were asked their reasoning behind gap years in a Georgetown University study, here is what they answered (from most answered to least answered):

  • Gain life experience and experience personal growth
  • Travel, see the world, and experience other cultures
  • Wanted a break from traditional academic track
  • Explore careers
  • Work experience
  • Interest experience
  • Volunteer
  • Encouraged by parents or peers
  • Finances

I was shocked by the number of students who said finances. If you go back to the original answer I get the most, I would have assumed the answers should have been reversed in order. The biggest reason I have heard is finances by far in my talking to high school students.


What are the benefits of a gap year?

Practically speaking, benefits from a gap year revolve around a couple of main things: finances, direction, and a plan. Going into a gap year, whether before college or during, you have to have a plan as to what the year is going to look like and what you want to gain out of it. This plan can give you gap year a direction in order to gain benefit out of the time off.

If you are not using a gap year for financial gain, the gap year can be much more purposeful. When you have a “stepping stone” mentality with your gap year, it can be beneficial for learning and getting “outside the classroom. You might be able to do things in a job or in travel that you might not otherwise be able to do. Gap years can also give you opportunities to find an industry you might want to work in after college.


What are the dangers of a gap year?

In a 2014 survey by the College Board and National Journal, it was found that students who went straight to college were more than three times as likely to earn a degree than those who went to work first. If you asked those students who didn’t go right away, many of them would use finances as one of the reasons.

Did you notice anything about the reasoning behind gap years? Travel, experience, volunteer, or taking a break from “traditional” education. These do not seem a pastime of one who is necessarily struggling to fund school. Malia Obama talks about the benefits of taking a gap year before going to Harvard. Again, not exactly someone who is hurting for money to get there.

What I am trying to emphasize, is most of these benefits from a gap year do not include saving money. One of the biggest reasons I have heard from high school students for a gap year is often one of the biggest roadblocks to college: finances.

One of the dangers then becomes trying to save up for college and getting sidetracked in the process. You take a year off and get a decent-paying job that affords you a car and apartment. You start to think, “this isn’t so bad. Maybe I don’t need college.” What happens when you lose that job? It’s awfully hard to market yourself without a degree.

Another danger comes when your original plans get pushed away because of your time off. You plan on taking a year off and heading the college of your choice. For one reason or another, people seem to give up on their original plan and settle for what is more comfortable where they are.


What should I do instead?

There are legitimate reasons to take a gap year just like there is a legitimate case saying that not everyone requires a college degree to be successful in life. If you are going to take a gap year, just make sure that you have a good reason and plan in place for that year.

If your reason is finances, I strongly encourage you to contact the college you are planning on going to and talking to their financial aid office. Colleges will work with you as much as they can to provide you with an education. Work hard on scholarships and extra income options for during school.

Before resigning yourself to a year off due to finances, talk to the college you want to attend. You might be glad you did.