The Gap Year—The Newest Addition to Higher Education

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Robin Pendoley and Kathy Cheng

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. 


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.


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. 


  • 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.


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 


  • 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.