Minding the Gap: Should Graduates Take a Year Off Before College?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 4 comments

plant in gapLong before high school seniors fret about those caps and gowns in the next few months, they’ve been thinking about the next step. Students are encouraged to go to college fresh out of high school, with recruiters, parents, counselors ad advisors hounding them to decide which colleges and courses of study they’ll pursue as early as their Junior year. But is it always a good idea to go to college right away? What are the possible risks students face if they take a year off, and what are the potential benefits?

To even consider the idea, you’ll have to get past the biggest perceived dangers:

  • Lack of productivity
  • Loss of momentum and the risk of never going, at all
  • Decreased chance of getting into a desirable university

The term ‘gap year’ evokes images of a terrifying stereotype: teens who live at home, jobless, watching Netflix all day and ordering takeout. Is this the reality for most who take a break between high school and college? According to the American Gap Association (AGA) and other advocates, it doesn’t have to be. A gap year is ideally a structured, purposely time for students to work, volunteer, and engage in many experiences beyond the scope of the classroom.

What about the risk of not returning? Doesn’t the act of entering the job market sign the death warrant for higher education? Not anymore. Instead of decreasing the motivation to go to college, a gap year can give teens a much-needed ‘reset’ from academic burnout. If you’re still worried, AGA reports that students who ‘gap’ are 90% likely to return to college within a year.

The last concern is also easily dismissed. Many universities and colleges allow students to defer their acceptance for up to one year. You’ll find a full list of requirements listed by university on the AGA’s site, but a frequent stipulation is that students pay a deposit to reserve their enrollment. Furthermore, many students report that a gap year actually increases their chances of getting into better universities.

The Benefits?

Rather than hurting young adults’ chances of a successful college and post-college career, advocates present these benefits of a gap year:

  • It helps students better prepare for college and find happiness in their chosen career.>
  • It can help them graduate faster.
  • It can mean huge savings on tuition and related expenses.

Because it gives them the opportunity for real-life experience and exposure in different career fields, a gap year can help students gain a better grasp on their personal identity, goals and interests. This translates into a more informed decision when it’s time to choose their major. As a result, the AGA has found that most students who take a gap report being as much as 75% happier with their careers.

For the majority of students, it takes 6 years to complete a 4-year degree. Why? Most often it’s due to switching majors and transferring to other colleges. Taking more time to deliberate over a career path — in a productive atmosphere outside the pressures of academia — can mean taking less time to actually complete a degree.

Less time in school and less program transfers means fewer tuition and other fees… which means less total student loan debt, giving graduates better financial footing right away.

Gap Options

Most students fill their gap year with various jobs in career fields of interest as well as volunteer work, whether with an official gap program or on their own. Some even travel abroad. If living and travel expenses are a concern, keep in mind that some organizations like Americorps provide a monthly stipend for living expenses, while other programs within universities even offer gap scholarships.

Just as college isn’t for everyone, neither is the gap year. When considering what to do after graduation, the important thing to remember is that it’s one of many viable (and potentially wiser) alternatives for a successful career and financial stability.

What do you think? Will you (or encourage your child) to consider a gap year?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

Ramona @ Personal Finance Today May 15, 2016 at 3:46 am

I took a gap year and used it to get a better position at my job and also start college fresh. Wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

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David Ning May 22, 2016 at 4:39 pm

That’s awesome you were able to take the one year to get so much farther ahead. The one year wasn’t just a “not such a bad deal”, but an incredible deal!

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Latoya @ Femme Frugality May 13, 2016 at 7:06 am

I agree that gap year isn’t for everyone. Where I come from, people who took that time off still took twice as long to finish college when they ultimately decided to go back. Reason? Because they were just taking a break and they didn’t have a purpose. When it was time to go back to school, they did the same thing all other traditional students do, switch majors, transfer, etc.

I would encourage my kids as long as they planned to do something constructive with the time. If they were going to start a hustle, volunteer, travel abroad…it’s certainly something worth considering.

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David Ning May 14, 2016 at 2:49 pm

A gap year is, IMO, only for a very small percentage of people because most high schooler just have no idea what they want to do and just one more year is not going to help.

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