The Transition to College

A gap year: more important than ever

The Value of the Gap Year

Families around the US are turning to the gap year to ensure their investment in higher education will pay off. With student learning in K-12 focused on grades and test scores to get into college, most students arrive on campus with no sense of purpose or direction. To gain value from higher ed, students need burning questions that drive their learning. Read More

value of the gap year

I was in college long ago, the 60's and 70's when many fewer people attended college. I had no idea what career I might be drawn to, the idea of college was to open up my options and interests, to continue my learning about the world and myself, to expose myself to subjects and ideas I hadn't been exposed to before. I felt no need to commit to limiting my learning opportunities until I was a junior in college and needed to choose a major. To think that all or most high school graduates will attend college because they have a burning passion about some area is I think unrealistic, more of my classmates than not had no idea where they would end up when beginning college. We all just knew our learning was incomplete. The classses I took in art history, Asian history, etc are in no way related to what I chose to do with my life, but so enriched my life. Would I have been exposed to those and many other classes had I had a "goal" when entering college, probably not, and my lfe would have been less rich for that loss. Will the gap year be the right decision, hard to say. I wonder how many may get caught up in life in ways that preclude their attending college in the future.

Changes in Higher Ed

Thanks so much for the comment. The point you make about college being a time for exploring is a great one. It should be. But, many students today are entering college not having any significant curiosity, meaning they don't know what to explore. Many don't even want to explore. Additionally, the drive to achieve with grades and test scores has left their studies devoid of much real world context. One thing we know about student learning is that having real world context to apply to the theories being learned dramatically improves engagement, critical thinking, and cognition.

I'm not a proponent of students entering college committed to a major. Nor do I see most gap year students entering college that way. Rather, they are entering school with a new sense of curiosity, fueled by questions about real world issues and topics they've encountered and want to know more about. Good gap year programs encourage students to look across disciplines and explore a topic by considering a broad set of perspectives. For example, a student interested in public health might be driven to classes on spirituality in search of an understanding of how stress and disease are conceived of in other communities and cultures. By helping students take ownership of their learning and move beyond simply striving to achieve, they are more likely to explore.

Finally, as the post mentioned, the higher ed value crisis is pointing to the fact that students are not gaining much from their undergrad investment of time and money. My experiences and our research at Thinking Beyond Borders shows that students complete well-designed gap year programs excited to start school, more deeply engaged in exploring the learning their campus offers, and gaining more value. They appear less likely to leave school. They also appear more likely to be able to contribute to future employers, institutions, and communities. I personally and professionally do not want to students to need gap years. But, the need is apparent, and I believe it is crucial for educators to do their best to address it. Gap years may not be the only way, but it is an effective one.

Thanks again for your comment!

The cost of college & job market situation prohibits a "gap year" for most people

You are free to speak to the elite few, of couse.
College is no longer a sure ticket for a job. With college costs being as they are, one had better make damn sure what their major is before stating college. The bill at the end will be astronomical as it is without fuguring in degree switches.
Better yet, just forget about having kids.

I began college at the age of

I began college at the age of 25 and older than most students in my classroom. I held off college because I didn`t know what I wanted in life and I wanted to explore the world. I joined the army and had my son before I started college. I`am glad that I waited to figured out my true passion. When I was in the army I realized I wanted to be in the medical field, I wanted people to come to me when their animal was ill. The gap years helped me realized my goals and dreams. I actually enjoyed college and doing really well in all my classes because I care enough to put in the effort and work. High school fails to prepare students for the real world because everything is focus on assessments and tests. Life isn`t about assessments or tests. It`s about how you apply what you learn and learning new skills to enchanced your job prospective.

I denied my daughter a gap year.

Thank you for this article. I wish I would have had it to read two years ago. My daughter, an energetic, outgoing, live life to the fullest kind of kid, begged me for a gap year. I wouldn't hear of it. After sending her to an expensive private art school, several states away, I literally felt crushed by her request. I am a single mother and we have always struggled financially. She knew just what she wanted all the way through high school and by the end of her Senior year, I realized our small local public school had no more to offer her in the field of art - and she was good. I scrapped and scrimped and even sold a vehicle to get her there - only to hear the following spring that she wanted a gap year. I was literally appalled at her lack of gratitude for all I was able to make possible for her. I truly did not understand and, it just wasn't an option.
Well, she was accepted at several very good universities/colleges. She picked one in Brooklyn and by mid-semester I didn't think she was going to make it. I made an emergency trip down due to her getting extremely sick - a very bad cold, swollen tonsils, and just wiped out. She came home for a full week. I had my doubts several times if I was going to be able to get her back. I did - then hurrican Sandy struck and she was back home for a week. She hated it and sobbed. She realized how fortunate she was to be able to be there and that that was killing her b/c she really just hated it. She looked so run down.
She did make it through the semester but transferred in January to another very good art school in Boston. She liked it better but still was not thrilled. I think her love for art was dwindling. She did make it through the semester and went back this fall - with more of the same. Over Christmas break (this was her sophomore year) we fought, talked, argued, cried and argued some more. I finally wore out. I did not understand why she needed a break but I heard her loud and clearly, and I could see it, she was BURNT OUT. Burnt out to the point of hating art - and then she would cry over that b/c art was going to be her life and she did so love it, but hated it at the same time. She is now taking the semester off. She is still in Boston and is working full-time. She is paying her own expenses so she is broke but she loves her job and just seems like my happy go lucky, full of life, little girl again. She is now drawing more than ever. I can hear it in her voice, she is enjoying it and is really beginning to think that she should minor in painting and focus on illustrating as she is going to need to be marketable when she graduates. Two days ago she called me and was excitedly talking about two summer courses she wanted to take and then what courses she was going to try to focus on next fall. I asked if she thought she was going to go back full-time. She said, "yes, definitely."
I'm in tears thinking about the last two years. And to top it all off, she is only 19. This poor kid was burnt and I kept pushing. The only one that I had spoken to, that seemed to understand her, was our family doctor - an extremely intelligent man that tried to explain to me that it was ok for her to take some time off - backed by several good commonsense reasons.
I'm an educated professional with two Master's degrees. I was a teacher and for the last 17 years have held administrative positions in the field of education. I was blind. I was wrong - and stubborn - and close minded and thank God my daughter endured. I have learned a great deal - at my daughter's expense - and I thought I was being a good parent.
I could not agree more with this article.

An All Too Common Story

Thank you so much for sharing what sounds like a very difficult couple of years for both you and your daughter. One of the stories we hear repeatedly from students and parents is that their family, friends, and even school counselors don't understand why they would take a gap year. They think something must be seriously wrong for someone to need a gap year. And, parents and students aren't always in agreement about whether a gap year is right (like happened in your family). Sometimes it's students pushing for it, sometimes it's the parents.

There is a very clear pathway that we have talked about for higher education in America for decades now -- go to high school and do well so you can go to a great college immediately. We've come to believe deviations from that pathway are inherently risky. What I've seen over the past 8 years is that slowly, more and more people are beginning to see adhering to that pathway and not taking a break can represent an even greater risk to our happiness, stability, and the investment we make in our education.

Thanks again for sharing that difficult and personal story.

Yes, and a gap year costs an entire year of college!

Who the hell can afford both, with college costs skyrocketing?
If my kid ever insisted they needed a "gap year" before college, I'd tell them how much money was available in total —one or the other, they can decide.

Affordable Gap Years

Thanks so much for the comment. There is definitely reason to believe that gap years are only for the wealthy and that they are quite expensive. However, this is largely a myth. There are a quite a few ways that gap years can be an affordable, free, or even paid learning and growth opportunity during the college transition. You can start to learn more about how to pay for a gap year here.

Also, higher education is, without a doubt, an incredibly expensive investment these days. The idea of doing anything that adds to that price tag seems silly. But, what really makes college expensive isn't just high tuition, but the low value of the learning students do. Where a generation ago a college degree virtually guaranteed a decent job, today it's value is dramatically diminished. That's not just because more people have them, but also that students are leaving college without the knowledge and skills they need to be able to contribute to a company or organization.

While adding to the cost of college seems silly given the high cost, research is showing that a gap year can be a means of ensuring students get far more out of the higher ed investment students and their families are already making. As the link above will show, that investment might not cost anything other than time.

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Robin Pendoley is an educator working at the forefront of the gap year movement in the US. 

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