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Avoid the Gap Year Mistake

Taking time isn't enough. It's what you do that matters.

As gap years become more common for American students transitioning to college, a common mistake has taken hold. Students and parents approach the planning process by talking about travel itineraries or adventure activities. They’re excited for the opportunity to see other cultures and parts of the world, perhaps while doing some service. Some students will work or intern, sometimes to help pay for travel as part of their year.

Here’s the problem with this approach: Students transitioning to college need more than just a break from school that includes interesting and fun activities. They need to be transformed.

Gap years are becoming more common because high school seniors feel burned out. It’s not that they’re tired from working too hard. It’s that high school is about getting grades and test scores to get into college. Most students will attest that their schooling hasn’t been about exploring their passions or developing an understanding of the real world and its challenges. They’re tired of the pressure to perform (rather than learn) in the classroom, in athletics, in the arts, and in civic leadership. Increasingly, high school seniors and their parents look to the gap year as a release after these high pressure years.

It’s common -- even among some gap year experts -- to laud the value of the kind of gap year described above. Students will learn to manage a budget, the value of a hard day of work, and to problem solve when traveling independently. While these are important lessons to learn, they aren’t a great return for the investment of a full year of a student’s life and potentially tens of thousands of dollars. More importantly, they don’t prepare students to succeed in college.

Image courtesy of Thinking Beyond Borders.
Source: Image courtesy of Thinking Beyond Borders.

Here’s where we should set our expectations: A gap year should prepare students to arrive on campus with burning questions that matter to them and matter to the world. Their curiosity should be driven by relationships they have with people, places, and the challenges we share as humans. They should be thrilled to know that they have four years ahead when they will be surrounded by the world’s experts in everything, incredible learning resources, and the flexibility to link these together in ways that will help them gain valuable expertise. Meaningful higher education comes when we leave our chase for grades behind and lead with our passion to become experts in things that matter.

To meet learning and growth expectations that are this high, a gap year has to be transformational.

It should never be assumed that this transformation comes simply because a student steps away from school. Transformational learning and growth requires mentorship from skilled adults who are there to support student learning, not assess it. It requires experiences that push students both out of their comfort zone and into their assumptions with a critical lens. It requires learning opportunities rooted in authentic engagements with real people, facing real issues, in the real world. It requires peers to share and process the experiences, reflections, and emotions raised. And, it requires intentionality to ensure all of these components are focused and integrated.

Source: Image courtesy of Thinking Beyond Borders.

The transition to college also comes at a challenging moment in our lives. At 18, we struggle to decide who we want to be and how to become that person. We yearn for new independence and to be treated as adults. Yet, with these processes come confrontations with substance use and abuse, sex, body image, mental health, and much more. Students at this age need competent and committed adult mentors in their personal lives. They deserve educators who know how to listen, ask questions, share perspectives, and act with authority when situations are dire. This kind of mentorship is often hard to find on college campuses.

The great value of well-designed gap year programs (like those certified by the American Gap Association) is that they facilitate all of this for students and parents. Cross cultural experiences are hard to come by as tourism industries stand between visitors and local communities. Supervisors at a job or internship can be helpful, but rarely do they have the time or expertise to offer meaningful and consistent mentorship. Learning communities that include passionate peers, challenging experiences, and the support to process them critically are difficult to create independently. These are all things that a quality gap year program can provide.

Yes, this type of transformational learning costs money. While there are scholarships available from program providers and outside sources, access to quality gap year learning is still unacceptably limited. Students, parents, educators, and policymakers should demand this type of transformational learning as part of each student’s transition to college. Given what students and families already spend for higher education in America, this is a fair expectation. Colleges can and should reimagine the freshman year to make this kind of learning accessible to anyone who can access college. Research suggests the students and colleges will see better outcomes of learning and engagement on campus.

A gap year is a crucial investment for higher education when we don’t make the mistake of setting the bar too low.

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