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Closing the Gap Year Gap

Amid the buzz about deferring college, how do we make a bridge year that's accessible and beneficial for all?
Closing the Gap Year Gap

Thanks to the particular choice of a particular 17-year-old (whose dad has a high-profile job in Washington, D.C.), a lot of the world is talking about gap years. But as Malia Obama’s decision to defer her Harvard admission shows, the conversations can carry some very privileged associations — seemingly distant from the post-secondary options available to many less-advantaged or nontraditional students and families.

So are gap years just another enrichment lever that only highly advantaged students can pull? Or is there a way to make gap year opportunities broadly accessible, without making college less attainable for the kids already at risk of not getting there?

An Equitable Gap Year
• Tied to college, conceived as a bridge year
• Highly structured
• Debt-free, financially sustainable
• A guided transition from high school, supported by school counselors
• A guided transition to college, with acclimation support from campus counselors
• Connected to service and career pathways

Richard Weissbourd, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), believes in the benefits of taking a year between high school and college — to explore work and service opportunities, to grow, to gain perspective — for many students. “There’s a conundrum here, in the sense that a gap year really works well for a lot of young people — those who want to explore service opportunities, travel, or work, but also for those who really need to decelerate, who need to think about their purpose, who may be very stressed, with some mental-health concerns.” For those young people, the merits of a year to refocus on their own sense of self while engaging in service to a broader community are persuasive, says Weissbourd, who is leading an initiative calling for broad reforms to the college admissions process.

But for economically disadvantaged kids, there’s a risk of falling off the college track altogether. “Many less-advantaged kids can’t afford a gap year or are tenuously connected to college as it is,” Weissbourd says. “School counselors are working to move those kids toward college, not away from it. You worry that if kids go to work for a year or step off the path in some way, they’re not going to come back.”

As gap years become more popular, says Mandy Savitz-Romer, the phenomenon has the potential “to give advantaged students even more advantages. The worry is that gap years become one more thing for less-advantaged students not to know about, and not to have.” The lack of parity could mean more than missed opportunities, says Savitz-Romer, who directs HGSE’s master’s program in Prevention Science and Practice and works on research and policy related to college access. It could make college admissions an even tougher hill to climb, as less-privileged students compete with gap-yeared peers who can demonstrate a range of skills and experience.

Connecting to College

One way to broaden the gap year opportunity is to tie it explicitly to college. “To work well for less-advantaged students, gap year programs have to be structured, with the expectation of postsecondary planning baked in,” Savitz-Romer says. “When the gap year occurs outside of an educational setting or another structured setting, now students lack the access to counseling and supports. They’re not attached to a college, but they’re no longer attached to their high school supports. So there are risks.”

Benefits of a Gap Year — for All Students
• Developing one’s identity and self-knowledge
• Developing maturity and judgment
• Promoting civic engagement and service
• Exploring and preparing for diverse career pathways
• Deceleration for fast-track students
• Health and wellness
• Support through the college acclimation process
• Preparation for academic, cultural, social realities of college
• Positive impact on college persistence for students at risk.

But the solution is to mitigate those risks, she says — “not to say that certain kinds of students can’t or shouldn’t do this.” 

Colleges have a role to play in finding those solutions, Weissbourd says. “For many economically disadvantaged students, you could imagine a gap year as being a bridge year, where they’re doing some academic or service work and they’re also getting some preparation for college, so that when they actually get there, they’re more likely to stay,” Weissbourd says.

He cites a program at Florida State University, where all students who apply for deferment are automatically considered for financial assistance to support their gap year — rare for a public university. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill runs its own service-oriented gap program, offered with financial assistance to a small number of its incoming students who wouldn’t otherwise be able fund such a year. And Princeton offers a tuition-free year for select incoming freshmen who want to do a service year abroad. (Harvard is among many top-tier institutions that encourage students to defer admission but don’t offer or fund gap programming.)

Connecting to Career

Employers could also play a key role, says Savitz-Romer. “For many low-income students, exposure to a variety of career pathways and options is limited. So you could imagine a system where companies or industries would pay into a gap year program, developing structured experiences that would help them build a pipeline to future employees — and that would connect students to careers, or even expose them to a range of careers within one industry,” she says.

In this model, the work experience would be explicitly tied to college-going — framed as a temporary opportunity leading to matriculation.

The Accessibility Conversation

Madelaine Eulich, now finishing a master’s degree at HGSE, welcomes the accessibility conversation. She’s worked in cross-cultural education in high school summer programs and gap year programs, as well as in higher education, and she now volunteers with the American Gap Association, an accreditation and standards-setting organization. “When lower-income or nontraditional potential gap year participants see newspaper articles with headlines like ‘Malia Obama's 'Gap Year' is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend,’ I worry that they will foreclose on the idea that a year of self-discovery, career exploration, and global perspective-taking could be for them as well” she says. There are a growing number of programs and opportunities that increase access to gap years, she says, and that number will only grow.

“The best possible outcome of the growing interest in gap years would be to have more students of all backgrounds gain access to the personal transformation that can take place during that time — the opportunity to enter college and the workforce with more maturity, self-knowledge, and understanding of others. This can be possible if program providers, the federal government, policymakers, and higher education institutions all work together.”

Additional Resources


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