If I controlled the world, I wouldn’t let a kid go to college until he or she took a year off. The catch phrase would be “We interrupt this schooling to bring you a year of education!” School can be and is great but “seat time” in a class may not be delivering the kinds of education that provide long-lasting relevance in the life of a human being. To wit: Is there a high school class that teaches self-esteem? Independent living and decision making? Initiative? Values based upon real life experience? Interaction with people of all ages, beliefs, and languages? Basic survival and living skills? Probably there are many “noes” across the board.
The kinds of life-altering, gap-year experiences typically do not include taking some courses at a nearby community college or bagging groceries at a local supermarket. Rather, it is completing an internship or traveling or becoming a low-paid member of an archeological expedition or serving as a crew member with a regional theater company or serving as a “gofer” at a financial services organization, law firm or government office. Doing any of these things away from home would be the best life-enhancing strategy for a meaningful gap year.
Why doesn’t this happen more often?
• Parents fear that the student will not want to go to college after a year off. If that is the case (which it usually isn’t) the student likely would have dropped out of college anyway since he didn’t really want to go in the first place. The downside of dropping out comes in the form of dealing with student (and maybe parent) debt with no enhanced way to repay it along with the stain of failure on a transcript which makes returning to college later and even getting a job more challenging.
• It doesn’t resonate very well at cocktail parties. Parents feel that their friends might snicker and think that the student applied to college and got turned down…thus the year off. With friends like that who needs enemies? Most people don’t really care whether your kids are at college or not. They are more interested in the quality of their own lives and the experiences that add to it.
• Kids are afraid to fall behind their peers. If you do something totally great for a year, your friends will drool with envy.
• There’s not general acceptance of the idea of a gap year. I am not a very religious person but I am quite certain that there is nothing in the New or Old Testaments, the Koran or any other holy book that requires a kid to attend college immediately after high school
• A year off containing some real-life experiences will equip you with a grid of reality through which college instruction will have to pass. This will help you evaluate those things that are important and those things which are not throughout your college education and beyond.
• Older college students seem to do better academically than younger ones. They have greater sense of purpose and are better able to handle assignments that require self direction and initiative.
• College admissions offices seem to like students who have acquired independent living skills and experience outside the classroom. One of the key ingredients that leads to a college dropout is homesickness fueled primarily by an inability to cope with the demands of being on your own. A gap year might, in some cases, make the difference between being accepted at a college or rejected.
• Kids who seem to have a better sense of self tend to behave more responsibly in the largely unregulated social scene at college. Naivete is not a great attribute to bring to a typical college party.
• Sometimes a solid experience in a gap year can help provide a sense of where the student might want to go with respect to a college major or even a career.
• More than one student has parlayed a gap-year experience into a promise of full-time employment following college. Gap year possibilities are nearly endless.
• A gap year may also provide for a second shot at a college if the student is rejected. It never hurts to speak with an admissions person at a rejecting college to discuss a gap year and the intent to reapply. Having the college approve of a gap year activity in advance may enhance the opportunity for admission a year later.
• Finally, and not insignificantly, a gap year for an older child may significantly lower the total cost of college for the family. In the financial aid system, having two kids in college at the same time may allow you to send two students to college for the price of one! Moreover, by having the older child take a year off and creating another year of overlap with a younger sibling, most families can save an entire year of college expenses since they will be paying for college one less year. For instance, if you have two kids three years apart in age, you will be paying for college for a total of seven years. If the older student takes a gap year between high school and college creating a second year of college-attendance overlap with the younger sibling, the family will be paying for college a total of six years and, voila, save one whole year of college expenses.
A gap year is not for everyone but for some, it can become one of the most important years in the education of a fully functional, well-adjusted adult. But before one takes this option, it should be carefully considered by both the student and the parents.
This piece was first published May 20, 2011 and is still very relevant.