Although most college-bound high school seniors are anxiously awaiting admissions decisions from the schools to which they applied, some students have already decided to take a break between their high school graduation and their freshman year of college. Not a summer vacation— a gap year.
Gap years have been common—almost expected—in Europe and Australia for decades, and the trend is slowly starting to grow in the United States. A recent survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles found that 1.2% of 300,000 first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities waited a year to enter college.
The idea of a gap year might cause some parents to worry that their child will never return to school and earn a degree, but research has found that gap years may actually have the opposite effect. An Australian study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in August 2010 suggests that taking time off between high school and college may help students gain motivation to complete a degree after they return home.
A 2008 MSNBC article claims that admissions officers from across the country find very few students “drop off the college radar” when they opt to take a gap year. US News and World Report even mentions a study of gap-year freshmen at Skidmore College in New York which found they had higher grade point averages than their peers.
Burnout from the pressures of high school and a desire “to find out more about themselves,” are the top two reasons students take gap years, according to a survey conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson of Advance, North Carolina, who are co-authors of a forthcoming guidebook on the topic.
The prestigious Harvard University actually encourages admitted students to take a gap year, deferring their enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way. Each year, between 50 and 70 students defer their enrollment at the school.
Princeton University’s Bridge Year Program was launched in 2009. It emphasizes international awareness by allowing newly-admitted undergraduate students to spend a year of public service abroad with University support before their freshman year.
Linda DeAngelo, the assistant research director for the Higher Education Research Institute, tells the Wall Street Journal that about 5% of four-year colleges and universities have formal policies allowing students to defer admission, up sharply from a few years ago. Other colleges and universities allow deferrals on a case-by-case basis.
Several different companies offer structured gap year programs, and Gap Year Fairs are being held across the country to reach out to potential participants.
When selecting a gap year program, remember to do a lot of research. Speak with people who participated in the program in the past, because some students actually report very little structure—such as Shoshanna Silverberg, who is now 28. She completed a gap-year program teaching in Ghana several years ago and “felt very disenchanted with it.”
She told the Wall Street Journal that although she was assigned to a mixed-age classroom of 18 students, she wasn’t given any direction about what to teach and was expected to discipline her restless charges by slapping them with a small switch. She asked to be transferred to another job as an administrative aide at an art school, but clear expectations were never provided. To make matters worse, she fell ill with malaria.
Understandably, structured gap year programs that involve extensive travel can be quite pricy, but budget-conscious students can volunteer or intern close to home. You can learn a lot in your own backyard!
If you’re the fearful parent of a child who wants to take a break between high school and college, consider this: Karl Haigler’s research found that 90% of students who took a gap year had returned to college within a year.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.