The popularity of “gap years,” time off between end of high school and the start of college, has been rising steadily. Resources and opportunities for gap year students have exploded as high school graduates, parents and educational institutions have flocked to the practice.
With this heightened interest has come a clearer understanding of the pros and cons associated with gap years.
Proponents of the practice point to the potential for students to enter college renewed and reenergized, with fresh direction and invaluable real-life experience. While those factors certainly enrich students’ educations, gap years can carry some real very drawbacks. Those drawbacks can be especially costly for students who don’t use the time wisely. Understanding the prospective benefits and challenges of gap years can help students and their families decide whether a gap year is right for them and, if so, how to make the most of it.
Striving for good grades while juggling sports, extra curriculars activities and the stresses of emerging physical, mental and social maturity can make high school exhausting for students. By the time they reach graduation, many students are bordering on burn out.
Students who immediately enroll in college often do not have time to recover their energy and enthusiasm before plunging into the demanding world of higher education. Gap years, by contrast, allow students to rest, recharge and refocus. Recovering their physical, mental and emotional health enables students to excel when they do go on to college. This can substantially improve their short- and long- term academic outcomes.
Pro: Life and Work Experience
Accumulating evidence suggests that the traditional pattern of moving directly into college from high school is not serving students or their future employers well. Statistics progressively point to vast divides between what students think they need and what they actually need to land, hold and thrive in good jobs within their fields of interest. For example:
- Approximately one third of college undergraduates will change their majors after enrollment.
- By some estimates, only a quarter of college graduates will end up working in the field in which they earned their degrees.
- More than half of new-graduate employers report finding college graduates lacking in fundamental job skills.
Gap years can be one way to bridge these unfortunate gulfs in knowledge and preparedness. They can provide ideal openings for students to land meaningful, full-time jobs or internships in their chosen fields. Those positions can offer students:
- Better understanding of their field and the career options within it.
- Invaluable professional, workplace and communication experience.
- Stronger resumes, letters of recommendation and foundational career networks.
- Employer-valued “soft skills” and increased maturity.
- Improved confidence and direction.
Students who work full time during their gap years frequently head to college with significantly more informed ideas about what skills and competencies they need and what courses, degrees and decisions will set them up for future success. They are better positioned than their peers to avoid potentially costly major and career changes and less likely to graduate with a degree they cannot or no longer want to use.
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Gap years can also provide students with practical independent living experience. Students working full time or traveling independently typically learn how to do mundane but essential things like budget, pay bills, manage a home and plan and prepare meals on their own. Before graduating from high school, many young adults have never had reason or occasion to practice or master these key life skills. Learning them before going to college can empower students to make better choices throughout their higher education careers.
The growth, exploration and knowledge-building that students do over the course of their gap years can also help them shine on their college applications, in their coursework and in future job interviews. Gap year students who use their time well can expect to have a strong edge over their peers in many respects.
Pro: Financial Stability
Higher education can be expensive. Even students who begin working part-time in high school often cannot earn or save enough to be in strong financial positions before they graduate. That lack of financial resources can lead to increased stress and student loan debt and decreased health and reduced opportunities in college. Students who use their gap year to work full time can amass a nest egg of funds they can use to improve the whole of their higher education experiences.
Alternatively, gap years can significantly improve some families’ financial aid statuses. Under current tax structure, families with more than one student in college at the same time qualify for much more financial aid support and larger tax breaks than if they had only one student enrolled. Depending on the age differences between children, families can see enormously financial benefits by delaying one child’s enrollment by a year to maximize the amount of time during which they have two children simultaneously enrolled in higher education.
Con: Dissociation from Peers and the Educational Environment
Despite the rising popularity of gap years, the vast majority of students still continue directly from high school graduation into college enrollment. Students who take time off in between therefore start their higher education careers behind most of their peers. For young adults accustomed to being in lockstep with everyone else in their age group, this dissociation can be uncomfortable or even distressing. The phenomenon can be particularly acute for students who travel abroad or engage in other life and perspective-altering experiences during their gap years. Failure to handle those changes and transitions consciously and positively can sometimes result in students feeling lost, isolated or even depressed.
Gap years also remove students from the regimented structure of academic life. While some students finish their gap years revitalized and eager to jump into the rigors of higher education, others may struggle to transition back into academic routines after so much time away.
Con: Lost Time and Money
Many students view their gap years to opportunities to travel. Seeing the world and exploring unfamiliar cultures can be an enlightening and mind-broadening experience. It can also be expensive. Students who invest their gap years in activities that cost money rather than make it can head into their college careers behind the curve financially. They may be less prepared for higher education expenses and graduate with heavier levels of debt unless they proactively take steps to contain and limit their gap year travel costs.
Finally, gap year students who are not intentional about where and how they invest their time can easily fritter away their year and be left with very little to show for it. This almost invariably places them at a disadvantage academically, socially and economically.
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