The gap year has become a hot topic in college transitions. The New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes, MSNBC, and countless other media outlets have covered this growing trend. They highlight exciting travels, community service, and research showing gap years can improve college GPAs and develop important learning capacities. But, the stories tend to fall short of identifying why gap years are becoming more popular.
It’s no small decision for students and parents to agree to step away from the path that almost everyone agrees is the sure road to success: go from high school to higher education to career. With only 1-2% of US high school graduates taking a gap year before college, those who choose to invariably have to answer questions from family, friends, and even guidance counselors. What’s wrong? Don’t you want to go to college? Aren’t you afraid you won’t go back to school?
So, what is driving students and parents to buck the dominant trend, accept the perceived risks of failure, and take a gap year?
I talk to hundreds of students each year who are considering a gap year. The common but vague reason they articulate is they feel burned out and need a break before heading back to the classroom.
Ask a few more questions, and the diagnosis becomes clearer: students are finishing high school feeling their education has been about getting grades and test scores to get into college. Their learning isn’t about pursuing burning questions that are important to them and the world. Their schooling has been about achieving rather than learning. And, this story is the same for students who struggle in the classroom and those who are headed to Harvard.
This is a HUGE problem. It’s a fundamental cause of the higher education crisis. The common discourse says the crisis is about the cost of college. In reality, the problem is that we’re not getting enough value from higher ed. How can we expect to when students are ill-equipped to take advantage of the learning colleges offer?
Students should arrive at college thrilled their responsibility is to become an expert in whatever they are most passionate about. They’re surrounded by the world’s experts in everything, incredible facilities, endless learning opportunities, and they have the flexibility to take advantage of it all.
But, that’s not how students arrive on campus. They tend to arrive with little sense of purpose other than what they’ve been told: do well in class so you can get a good job. Their learning is disconnected from the real world and it is not driven by their passions, interests, or values. Students feel no ownership of their learning. And, that’s how we’ve taught them to be. Their K-12 education has been about getting the grades and test scores to get into college.
Accessing and making meaning out of the mountain of learning opportunities colleges offer requires students to forge a pathway for themselves. Their purpose for being on campus has to be driven by what they want to learn, not a vague and ill-defined “good job” after graduation.
An intentionally designed gap year can help students develop this sense of purpose and direction. A program that challenges students to explore areas of interest in the real world brings clarity to what needs to be learned to become an expert in those fields. Critically reflecting with a mentor upon these experiences helps students identify questions that matter to her and the world. Engaging with peers in a group setting helps develop social skills and gives an intentional space for students to shape their adult identity.
The gap year holds incredible potential for adolescent learning and growth because it is a developmental moment when significant social and cognitive changes occur. In the coming weeks, this blog column will highlight important lessons and developments related to gap years and how they are preparing students for success in college, career, and life.