Recently, Malia Obama made the decision to take a gap year — a hiatus of 12 to 15 months between the end of high school and the start of college. While this news brought a spate of reactions from critics and supporters alike, Malia is among a growing number of students making this decision. In the past year, more academic proponents, including Ivy League schools, have come out in public support of gap years and more students are picking up on the trend.
One of the most debated themes about the gap year is how young adults can afford a year of non-educational leave. The American Gap Association publishes annual statistics on gap years. Data show 35 percent of “gappers” attend private school (10 percent of students attend private high school nationwide) and indicate they have the support of their parents. Costs vary depending on the types of programs students engage in and if colleges support them. Schools such as Princeton, UNC Chapel Hill and Tufts are creating specific bridge programs that fund an interim year. Some organizations also fund a gap year, such as Global Citizen Year. If a rising college freshman is considering a gap year, these are good places to start.
The Benefits of a Gap Year
The gap year has also become increasingly popular as data point to its benefits, like these cited by the American Gap Association:
- greater maturity, global awareness and “ownership” of one’s education
- increased self-awareness
- fluency in a foreign language
- problem-solving skills
Building up student’s non-academic strengths is incredibly important to their development and transition into college and adulthood. The American Gap Association also provides more food for thought: More than 90 percent of gap students return to college after just one year. Some students take the year off to travel, volunteer or even become a Cultural Care Au Pair so they can experience a new culture, learn a language better or to travel.
A majority — 60 percent — of gap students indicated that their gap year set them on track for both academic and professional careers. Generally speaking, gap students have lower academic burnout and more motivation during their initial year of college. Gap students graduate just as quickly, in 3.75–4 years, and their GPAs have been shown to be anywhere from one-tenth to four-tenths of a point higher than students who didn’t take a gap year. Of students who take a gap year, 88 percent also report high job satisfaction once they graduate.
Weighing the Options
Before making a decision, students should talk it through with trusted adults — both in school and at home — who can support them through the decision-making process. Students who think a gap year may give them a better chance at an elite school may be disappointed. Research shows that taking a gap year makes no difference in acceptance to better colleges. Organizations associated with gap years emphasize the importance of making plans to attend college before taking the year off. Many universities will accept a student as they apply during their senior year, but allow a hiatus year before starting.
A gap year can be filled with opportunities from travel and cultural awareness to maturity and self-confidence. If, however, students are excited to start college and aren’t keen on taking a gap year, encourage them to follow the path that makes the most sense for them. The importance of individual fit and readiness is paramount. Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”.