Robin Pendoley Ed.M

The Transition to College

Guidance Counselors Should Reconsider the Gap Year

Many Discourage It, But Research Shows They Shouldn't

Posted Mar 16, 2015

It happened again yesterday. A mother of a gap year student shared  -- raved, actually -- about how important the experience has been for her daughter. She was a strong student in high school, but she didn’t love learning anymore and didn’t have the sense of purpose and direction she was going to need to succeed in college. The gap year program she participated in helped her find a passion for learning and is sending her into higher education knowing what she wants.

Then, this mother dropped an all-too-familiar bombshell: The guidance counselor at her daughter’s high school had strongly discouraged a gap year.

Why Many College Counselors Don’t Recommend Gap Years

We measure the success of US high schools on a lot of metrics. But, college guidance counselors are responsible for one metric above all others: the percentage of each graduating class heading to college the following fall. For elite schools, this metric goes even further, focusing on the percentage heading to “elite” colleges. These metrics are reported to the government, are used in marketing materials, and even show up on real estate listings. They matter. And, guidance counselors are the members of the school staff most responsible for ensuring this critical percentage remains high.

In many schools, students who defer their freshman year of college to take a gap year are not considered to be part of the “college bound” percentage of their class. Given the massive importance of this metric, it’s clear that college guidance counselors have little institutional incentive to recommend gap years to their students.

Dispelling the Myths about Gap Years

There are four arguments guidance counselors use to discourage gap years. Unfortunately, they are based in commonly held myths. Let’s address them:

  1. If you can get into college, you’re ready for college -- College campuses have a culture and learning environment all their own, and they often fail to meet the developmental needs of college freshmen. We’ve all heard stories of the personal and academic struggles college students face. These stresses contribute to truly frightening levels of anxiety and mental illness. A structured gap year is an intentional approach to transitioning to college to ensure personal and academic success. Programs often include adult mentorship on a daily basis, providing support as they gain maturity and transition to college. Because K-12 education has largely become about getting grades and test scores to get into college, students rarely have meaningful experiences learning in the real world. A gap year can help students develop a sense of purpose and direction rooted in a critical application of their values and passions to real world issues. Without this, how can they be expected to create a meaningful course of study in college?
  2. A gap year is a year “off” -- Forget the image of a student playing video games at home or hostel hopping in Europe. There are a wide variety of gap year options available today, from structured programs to individualized plans including work, internships, and meaningful cultural exchange. The gap year world is increasingly dominated by talented educators offering powerful learning and growth opportunities specifically designed to prepare students for higher ed and professional careers.
  3. Academically successful students don’t need a gap year -- Research has proven this to be untrue. Bob Clagett is the former Dean of Admission at Middlebury College, worked in admissions at Harvard University for 17 years, and is now Director of College Guidance at St. Stephen’s School in Austin, TX. His research using data from undergraduates at Middlebury College and the University of North Carolina demonstrates that students who took a gap year had higher GPAs than they would have without a gap year. At Thinking Beyond Borders, our impact assessment demonstrated that students completed the program with a clearer sense of purpose and direction for college and as more powerful learners. These institutions serve students at the highest levels of academic achievement, and all have shown that academically successful students benefit substantially from gap years.
  4. Gap years are too expensive -- Many make the mistake of dismissing gap years as being too expensive because of sticker shock from some program providers. But, programs offer scholarships, financial aid, college credit (though this should be considered carefully), and even support students raising funds for their tuition. Students of all financial backgrounds can access fantastic gap year options, if they are willing to do the work to make them possible. Additionally, parents often report that students with a clearer sense of purpose and direction are more likely to graduate on time.
  5. There’s no way of knowing which gap year programs are safe and high quality -- Guidance counselors have an enormous job advising students on the hundreds of college options available to them. So, learning about gap year options feels like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are three great resources for students and parents to research and vet gap year programs. First, the USA Gap Year Fairs program listings and annual fair series are the easiest ways to find programs that meet any student’s needs. Next, the American Gap Association certifies programs if they meet rigorous safety and quality standards. Finally, GoOverseas.com provides student and parent reviews of programs listed on their site that give great insight into the learning and growth you can expect.

Without these myths supporting arguments against gap years, we are left with only one question: What can be done to support guidance counselors to encourage students and parents to consider a gap year as an important part of the college transition?

The Fix

The solution is for schools to change the post-graduation metric. Most gap year students apply to college during their senior year and then defer. High schools can change the counting to include deferred students to be counted among those heading to 4 year schools. In some schools, this may be an easy process. For others, it can be a political one that requires guidance counselors to advocate to the administration for this change. Given the high cost of college and the important role a gap year can play in helping students get as much value as possible from their higher ed careers, this is a fight worth fighting. And, by meeting the learning and growth needs of our students as they transition out of high school and into college, schools will find themselves happier and more appreciative alumni.

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