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The Gap Year—The Newest Addition to Higher Education
Gap years are not the norm—not yet, anyway. But this number is growing exponentially as more and more parents and students are recognizing the incredible growth, learning, and focus that other students have gained from taking a gap year.
High school guidance and college admissions counselors are also seeing a gap year as a critical preparatory phase for even the highest achieving students. Educators highlight the benefit of concrete, real world experience as an exceptional foundation for four years of college study.
While it may feel like a risk to step outside of the norm, take comfort in knowing that the best schools in the country—both at the high school and college level— are now encouraging students and families to consider a gap year.
Below are the essential benefits, options, and opportunities you’ll need to know about as you plan a gap year for your teen.
WHAT IS A GAP YEAR?
A “gap year” is typically a period between completing high school and beginning college. It may be either a semester or a full year away from traditional classroom studies. While there are countless reasons to consider a gap year, the most important is that gap year students are generally better prepared for college. A well-structured gap year allows students to develop personal and social maturity, academic focus, and a sense of direction. With studies showing that 33% of college students drop out before graduation, it is clear that this type of learning experience can be crucial. When it comes to shaping your gap year, there are a variety of program types to choose from, including academic programs, working or interning in a field of interest, volunteering, pursuing athletics, or traveling.
All provide students with great opportunities to:
- Gain “real world” perspective and direction that give the college years meaning and purpose.
- Develop maturity and independence by joining professional communities as a volunteer or employee.
- Attain a deeper understanding of our local and global society that traditional schooling rarely provides.
- Pursue various fields of interest to test or define a career path.
IS A GAP YEAR RIGHT FOR ME?
Every high school senior should consider a gap year; the benefits listed above make a good case for it. Let’s take a moment to dispel the myths that stop some from looking at gap year options:
1.They are too expensive. Gap year opportunities range from those that cost the same as a year of college to those that will pay a stipend and an education award to participants. Everyone can find a way to make a gap year affordable.
2.They are only for students who aren’t ready for college. Programs and individual options vary greatly, offering opportunities for essential learning and growth for all types of students. 3.There is a strong risk that students won’t go back to school. Experts with decades of experience in the field estimate that over 95% of gap year students who were on a college track go back to school immediately following their time away from the classroom.
HOW TO CHOOSE?
- Once you have a sense of the options available, it’s time to narrow the field. Answering the following questions will help you hone in on the best fit:
- How Long? Program options are a few weeks to eight months. While some students want to experience a diverse year with lots of different activities, others choose a more in-depth experience from a single program.
- International or Domestic? International opportunities range from university learning to service programs. Domestically, there are options offering students a chance to live, work, study, and volunteer in different communities.
- Group or Individualized? It is important to consider who will serve as the student’s support system while away from home. Group programs offer a peer community, focus, and support from well-trained program leaders, while individualized programs offer more freedom for the student.
- Service or Learning? If service is the goal, make sure the program’s work aligns with the contribution the student hopes to make.
- Price Range? Finding your ideal gap year program that fits within your price range may require some flexibility. Just remember that there are affordable options for every budget.
IS A GAP YEAR A GOOD INVESTMENT?
With the cost of college rising nearly every day, a gap year is an excellent investment for any student’s education.
Consider the following:
- Gap Years Can Help Pay for College There are a number of gap year options that will pay students both a living stipend and an education award. City Year and AmeriCorps provide a range of service learning opportunities in communities around the U.S. A year of service is rewarded with a modest living stipend and a $5,500 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to be applied toward college tuition. Many colleges around the country will augment that award, sometimes even doubling or tripling its value.
- Gap Year Students Get More Out of College Gap year students widely report being more focused, driven, and directed during their college years. Investing in a gap
HOW MUCH SHOULD I SPEND?
- While money is an important factor when comparing programs, it’s important to not let it limit your search. Ultimately, you want to find a program that is both affordable and the right fit. Here are some things to think about when evaluating the cost of a program:
- You Get What You Pay For When looking at the cost of a program, carefully consider group size, safety, support services, itinerary details, quality of experience, and learning opportunities.
- College Credit = $ Some organizations offer college credit for successful completion of their gap year program. It is important to check with your university prior to your program to determine if those credits will transfer. If accepted, the credits earned may satisfy general education requirements, shortening your time on campus and reducing tuition costs. Additionally, accredited programs are often eligible for traditional college scholarships.
- Scholarships and Financial Aid Many programs offer scholarships and financial aid. Scholarships can range from a few hundred dollars to enough funds to cover all costs of participating. Some programs will assist students in raising funds on their own. Additionally, organizations like Rotary International provide scholarships for student exchange.
- Earn Your Keep Plan ahead and schedule time over weekends, summers, or holidays to work and earn money to put toward the cost of your gap year. Some students choose to spend the first few months of their gap year working full time locally to finance programs or travel later in the year.
Virtually every student can benefit from a gap year. All it takes is some planning, legwork, and flexibility to make it happen.
Robin Pendoley is Co-Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders (www.thinkingbeyondborders.org), an educational gap year program.
Kathy Cheng is Director of Admissions of Dynamy Internship Year (www.internshipyear.org), an experiential learning gap year program.
The USA Gap Year Fairs organization and events are a collaboration of Thinking Beyond Borders and Dynamy Internship Year