The “gap year” is in the news, thanks to Malia Obama’s announced decision to take a year off before she begins studies at Harvard. The number of students who elect to take a gap year has steadily grown here in the US, but it has long been common practice in places like the UK and Australia. A report from the American Gap Association (AGA), (americangap.org/data-benefits.php) provides some valuable insights into how these gap years can be life and career-changing and why efforts need to be made to increase access to this type of program.
Not too surprisingly, 81% of respondents reported that they were “very likely” to recommend the program to someone considering it. As Suzy Strutner of the Huffington Post wrote , “When else are you going to be 18 years old with no job, no mortgage payments, no significant other, no kids, no homework and no worries? Never. The answer is never.” There is much to like about the gap year from a student’s point of view. But there’s no getting around the value of taking that gap year, especially if you take it in another country, hard as that is for many a parent to hear. 92% of the respondents cited “wanted to gain experiences, personal growth” as one of the motivations for taking a gap year. With the often highly-regimented middle and high school curricula facing our kids today, it’s not hard to understand why they have had little time for the kind of introspection one experiences on a long train ride across Europe. Every activity from sports to hobbies seems to have a “how does this look on my college application?” component. It can become overwhelming. Call it “burnout.” Taking a year out to stop and figure out who you are and what the world is really like should probably be mandatory.
While the sample was limited (just 558 people completed the survey), the demographic results were telling. The respondents were overwhelmingly female (70%), white (84%), and had both parents born in the US (77%). In general, students with one or both parents who were college graduates were much more likely to have been influenced by their parents and/or peers to take a gap year. And the more affluent a student’s parents were, the more likely they were to contribute to the gap year. One could argue that the data shows that the gap year is still mainly the pursuit of those who have the benefit of the resources to finance it. At the same time, it is important to point out that the industry has recently expanded to provide resources and opportunities to a much broader socio-economic range.
The benefits cannot be denied. “Gappers,” as they’re known, have a median time of 3.75 years to graduation as compared to the six years it takes 59% of students nationwide! And while participants in programs outside their home country were more satisfied than those who stayed in the US, 98% of all the respondents said the experience “Allowed me time for personal reflection,” and “Helped me develop as a person.” Some 86% of the gappers who responded reported subsequent college GPAs of 3.0 or higher. More broadly, they are less likely to change majors and more satisfied with their subsequent careers.
If you’re a parent, it’s hard to visualize your child far from home. But before you reject this concept out of hand, conduct some research into the many options available. Programs offer a wide range of structure, focus, cost, and time span. Whether it’s as an intern for a major corporation or as a social service worker in a foreign country, opportunities exist to expand horizons, explore new cultures, and experience what life is really like for others. A year in a different country provides a wide-angle lens for viewing the day-to-day pitfalls of a college career. A bad date, missed concert or argument with a friend takes on a smaller appearance in the context of broader world view.