The GAP Year: Need A Reason?

We’ve discussed GAP years before. GAP years are available at many colleges (better check first, though). Your GAP year happens after you have been accepted to and enroll at a college offering this option, but you don’t move onto campus until the second fall after your enrollment. In other words, there is a year’s “gap” between enrollment and matriculation.

You probably already are aware of what a GAP year is, and maybe even are considering it, but you may be looking for a reason, some motivation for making the GAP year choice. That’s what I’d like to cover today — why young people choose the GAP year.

In some previous posts here, I’ve mentioned Counseling@NYU (“C@NYU”). Among many other things, it’s a source of solid knowledge about higher education options and opportunities. I received some useful information about GAP years from them this week, so I thought I would share it with you to expand and enhance the GAP year information I’ve already discussed.

Let’s talk about what motivates college-bound students to take the GAP year plunge. According to Counseling@NYU, the online masters in school counseling program from NYU Steinhardt:

The following data is from the 2015 survey from the American Gap Association (AGA). Study participants — individuals 18 to 60 years old who have taken a gap year — indicated their primary motivation for taking a gap year.

The results indicate the popularity of the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of individuals who had participated in a gap year.

(Click to enlarge.)

It’s important to note that fewer than 1 percent of college freshman take this time off. Additionally, there is skepticism surrounding the effectiveness of a gap year. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Ann Marie Klotz, dean of campus life at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), noted that a gap year is a privilege usually taken by more affluent students. Lower-income students “who work after graduating high school in hopes of saving for college never actually go to college.”

Of course, perhaps the main concern of the majority of college students (and parents, of course) is money. How to pay for a college education has been the mother of invention in many cases. The GAP year provides a year-long platform from which to work a job and create some cusion for college expenses before setting foot on campus.

Naturally, working while on campus is quite common. Work-Study programs and other local part-time jobs allow students to multitask earning and academics, but the savings pace is relatively minimal compared to having a full year devoted to working (perhaps full time) while living at home and banking much needed income. The year off can also provide a buffer from additional, unanticipated college expenses created by uncertainty about careers and/or a life’s direction. As C@NYU notes:

Lower-income students may feel that a gap year is too expensive, or that a shot at higher education is too valuable to put off for a year. That’s not always the case.

“A gap year would be even more beneficial to these students,” says Kim Oppelt, a former high school counselor, now working as an outreach manager at Hobsons. If lower-income students go to college “blindly — without a major they are passionate about, or a college where they truly fit,” they may end up changing their major or transferring schools, which would just extend their college years and increase their student debt.

Gap-year students have higher career satisfaction than non-gappers, according to a 2015 surveyconducted by AGA and Temple University. Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association (AGA) said he believes such benefits should not only accrue to the wealthy.

“Why should career satisfaction only be the province of the well to do?” he said. He especially likes gap-year programs that “interweave lower- and higher-income students to demystify the experience of wealth … and take the ceiling off of their potential careers.”

What about a year off vs. academic momentum? Thinking back on my own experience, I was a bit “book beat” by the time I graduated from high school. Those twelve consecutive years of study and testing had taken a toll on my endurance. Granted, I had accumulated a fair pile of knowledge, some useful, some not so useful. I’m always reminded of Paul Simon’s song, Kodachrome:

“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall” …

Thus, maintaining a hold on all that stuff you learned in high school can be problematical. So, C@NYU addresses the issue of whether or not taking a GAP year is a good idea?:

Many parents (and some high school counselors) balk at the concept of a student taking a year off immediately after 12 years of formal schooling. Critics worry students’ commitment to attending college will falter, but these worries may be unfounded. In fact, most students Haigler and Nelson surveyed said they felt more enthusiastic and prepared for college after taking a gap year.

When dealing with nervous parents, counselors should share the data and stress the benefits of gap years. Counselors should also point out that for the gap year to be successful, it’s crucial the year be structured. “A gap year should not be looked at as a vacation after high school or as a way to let loose before attending college,” Oppelt said.

The best programs feature some combination of cross-cultural experience, language learning, real-life work, and volunteer experience. AGA is one organization that puts students in touch with opportunities to study, travel, volunteer, and work.

If you do decide to take a GAP year, what kinds of outcomes can you expect? What kinds of outcomes do you expect? Here are some helpful survey results to provide some context (again, click to enlarge):

My favorite outcome on that list is at the top: “Allowed me time for personal reflection.” I’ll say a hearty “Amen!” to that.

Granted, you introverts are probably more responsive to reflection time than many of you extraverts. However, regardless of your nature, ask yourself when you last took a good look at yourself. Self-examination can many times be the key to self-discovery.

When I was 18, I had the vaguest  idea of who I was and where I was headed, or even where I wanted to head. Therein lies the conflict.

Many teens are challenged to head to college immediately after high school, even when they have no sentient rudder fixed to their Ship of Life. The result of that can be confusion, frustration, unhappiness, rebellion, lack of academic success, failure, transferring, and the consequential loss of time, effort, and money.

Taking a GAP year might also be viewed as a kind of “divide and conquer” approach for young people to obtain maturity and direction. They can rightly divide the two major learning periods of their lives: those years up to and through high school and the years that comprise higher education. A GAP year can allow for catching one’s breath between tackling those two educational components.

It might also be like making a long car trip. Taking a rest break after two or three hours of driving can re-energize one’s enthusiasm for continuing the trip. Staying behind the wheel without rest can lead to exhaustion and frustration about why one is even making the trip. For some students, going straight to college is like that long car trip with no break.

So, lots to consider as you rising seniors prepare to enter your college admissions process. Remember: “GAP” can mean much more than clothing and accessories.

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