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A Time to Explore

Making gap year programs feasible and affordable for every student who wants to take one

May 16, 2016
pathway leading to beach and sunset

Malia Obama’s announcement that she was deferring her admission to Harvard for a year couldn't have come at a better time: It happened on day one of the second annual Gap Year Conference, hosted by the American Gap Association (AGA), the accreditation and standards-setting organization that keeps the industry accountable to student safety, positive host relations, and student learning.

Malia's announcement not only helped put the gap year on the map, but it encouraged real-time conversation among program providers, gap year consultants, and AGA members on how to grow the field in a way that keeps the option of a gap year open to all — and not just children of the affluent. My hope is that as a result of these conversations, more students will consider that a year of self-discovery, career exploration, and global perspective-taking can be a viable option for them, no matter their background.

There are a growing number of programs and opportunities that increase access to gap years, and I expect these options will only multiply. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of examples:

  • Program scholarships/financial aid: More and more programs are offering scholarships or financial aid to increase accessibility. Perhaps the most progressive is Global Citizen Year, an organization based in Oakland, California, that offers programs in Senegal, India, Brazil, and Ecuador. Global Citizen Year is dedicated to accessibility and offers some level of scholarship to 80 percent of its participants. One-third of participants receive a full ride covering all program fees. Other programs (i.e. Thinking Beyond Borders) also offer need-based scholarships, and many others connect students to financial aid and external scholarship options (i.e. Carpe Diem Education). Several programs that don’t have the resources to offer hefty scholarships encourage students to fundraise, which many students do successfully. But, of course, this route could prove more challenging for lower-income students who might have fewer connections to people and organizations with resources to contribute.
  • Leadership at the college level: Colleges and universities are also starting to pick up on the benefits of a gap year and are encouraging students to engage in these experiences by offering scholarship money and college credit for gap years. Florida State University (FSU) is now actively encouraging admitted students to take a gap year. Students who take part in FSU's gap year option are eligible for scholarships of up to $5,000 to support their experience. University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill also offers a gap year scholarship of up to $7,500 for early admitted students who choose to do a gap year committed to service abroad. Other colleges and universities are also launching programs where students can count their gap year as part of their college credit (the Tufts 1+4 bridge-year service program and the New School’s first-year abroad program, for example). Some gap year programs (like Omprakash EdGE, Carpe Diem Education, National Outdoor Leadership School, and more) offer college credit through specific host universities.
  • Volunteering, work to travel, paid internships, abbreviated “gap years”: If students aren't able to access scholarship money for a program, there are many other ways to take a gap year without breaking the bank. In fact, the term "gap year" is misleading; a gap experience doesn't have to be a full year – it could be three months over the summer, one college semester, or a stitching together of several different volunteer and paid work opportunities over nine months. Organizations like Omprakash connect students to volunteer opportunities completely free of charge, so students can put together their own experience without paying a program to coordinate. Other students might choose to work for an organization abroad, earn money for cost of living, and end up paying only for plane tickets. Some might get a paid internship or a job in their hometown or in another state in the U.S., a great option for those who specifically want to save money for college and explore a career path on their gap year. There are also great options out there to take a low-cost domestic service year through programs like City Year and Americorps.

Gap years have been shown to enhance students' personal, professional, and educational development, as well as improve academic performance in college. A recent national survey of gap year alumni reports that those who participated in a gap year had, on average, a shorter time to graduation and higher GPAs than the national norms. This speaks to the benefit of having a year "off" before college to explore career possibilities and uncover personal interests or skills. Gappers also currently experience higher levels of job satisfaction and civic participation than the national norms.

It’s important to note, however, that this research involved students who had already taken a gap year — perhaps not be the broadest, most diverse sample at this point (the national alumni survey data [PDF] is on the AGA website and breaks down socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds of gappers). So while I believe that lower-income and first-generation students would experience very similar benefits from a gap year — space for personal growth and maturation; discovery of academic and/or career interests; more academic focus and self-knowledge in college; higher levels of civic engagement — we need more students of all backgrounds to participate in the gap year movement before that can be confirmed.

And, of course, a gap year might not be for everyone. As I’ve learned this year, there is real disparity in the quality of academic and social-emotional support that students receive in the U.S. education system. This means that there might be some students for whom, even if finances weren't a barrier, stepping off the path to college completion may not be realistic. This is something that gap year programs, secondary and post-secondary institutions, and policymakers need to keep an eye on as the gap year trend gains momentum.

My hope is that the recent conversation around the gap year movement encourages — and does not discourage — students of all backgrounds to consider taking an experiential year “off” before college. If structured appropriately, the result of more students taking a year to gain self-knowledge, connect to career and civic engagement opportunities, and gain an understanding of the world outside of school can only be positive for those individual participants and for society as a whole.

Additional Resources

Learn more about how to make gap years into a bridge to college for low-income and first-generation college students.

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About the Author

Madelaine Eulich
Madelaine Eulich received her master’s in education with a concentration in human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She previously worked in international education, leading and coordinating summer abroad and gap year programs for the Experiment in International Living, Student Diplomacy Corps, and Global Citizen Year.
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