Episode 115: What About a Gap Year Before College?

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While today’s topic might not be an issue in higher education generally, it could well be an issue in your own teenager’s higher education–and it’s an issue that you might want to think about quickly right now if you have a high school senior. It is the notion of having your teenager take a gap year between finishing high school this spring and starting college this fall. For those of you who have high school juniors at home, it’s not too early for you to be thinking about this option, too.

For those of you wrestling with which college your teenager should attend when he or she has some options, let us remind you that, last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on how to think about that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, and one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. As we said last week when we highlighted some key points from those three episodes, we just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making this all-important choice with your teenager.

With all that said, we are guessing that there are some families that are not thrilled with the college options they have at the moment, and today’s episode might give those families something else to consider. Like everything, the notion of a gap year has pros and cons, though I have to say that there are a lot of fervent supporters–far more than I thought before I did this episode. Let’s get some background.

1. The Background

Let me start by saying that I happened on an article from The Conversation from way back last May. The Conversation is, in its own words, “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.” The Conversation explains that its “team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.” (quoted from the website) The Conversation, which was founded in Australia and now operates in the U.K. and U.S. as well, is a free resource, which addresses issues in arts, business, politics, the environment, health, technology, education, and more–so check it out.

The discussion today comes from an article by Joe O’Shea, the Director of Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University, and Nina Hoe, the Study Director at the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. O’Shea is the president of the board of the American Gap Association, and Ms. Hoe is the Association’s Director of Research. My guess is that they might not be the most impartial chroniclers of the benefits of a gap year; nonetheless, they offer a lot of information on the topic in their article.

Although gap years have been discussed–and taken–in the U.S. for many years, the notion of a gap year landed squarely on our collective radar when Malia Obama decided to take 2016?2017 as a gap year before attending Harvard this coming fall. Now, that probably had to do with the fact that her father was finishing up his presidency more than anything else, but perhaps she put gap years on the map for a lot of families that had never thought about them.

The data show that about 11 percent of Australian students more than 10 years ago were taking gap years compared to no more than 3 percent of U.S. students today. What is a common topic of discussion and real alternative for educated families in the U.K. is rarely discussed here in the U.S., especially among middle-income and lower-income families.

And yet, Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe assert, in their article, that gap years are getting more popular in the U.S. So, let’s look at what the research shows.

2. The Research

The authors present evidence that an alarmingly sizable percentage of students on college campuses are stressed severely enough–including to the point of being medically diagnosed with anxiety or depression–to cause them to seek counseling from on-campus health services. The authors also note that “faculty and staff are reporting that today’s students lack coping skills such as resilience and the ability to succeed independently despite adversity” (quoted from the article). It is a picture of too many college students who are burned out from intense high school years, over-anxious, and unable to handle the many demands of college academic and social life.

Well, if that’s the problem, what does research say about the solution? Here is what the authors say:

Research shows that a gap year . . . can provide students the opportunity to gain personal skills such as independence, resilience, confidence and focus. A combination of activities during this year that involve volunteering, interning or working, either domestically or internationally, can provide meaningful experiences that challenge students outside their comfort zones. These experience[s] can help students reevaluate how they understand themselves and the world.

Several peer-reviewed studies focusing on students in the U.K. and Australia have shown that students who took a gap year experienced a host of personal benefits, such as higher levels of motivation and higher academic performance in college.

A 2015 survey of over 700 former gap year participants found overwhelming personal, academic, career and civic engagement benefits associated with taking a gap year.

Over 90 percent of all respondents indicated that their gap year provided important time for personal reflection, aided in personal development, increased maturity and self-confidence, and fostered the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Specifically related to college, 73 percent of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase their readiness for college, 59 percent said it increased their interest in attending college and 57 percent said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college. (quoted from the article)

As loyal listeners of USACollegeChat know, we are all about getting kids outside their comfort zone, so that is an appealing aspect of a gap year. And I do think that what the research finds is entirely believable. I imagine that most adults would agree that a one-year dose of the real world?whether that is in a volunteer or paid setting, whether that is at home or far away, whether that is working with people like you or people not at all like you?is likely to help teenagers grow up and give them more life-coping skills than they had when they started.

But what about their future academic life? What if they like the path they are on in their gap year so much that they decide not to go to college at all? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what happens when they do go to college after a gap year?

Here is some research cited, with obvious approval, on the American Gap Association website:

From Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs: “. . . In Australia and the United Kingdom, economic researchers found that high school students who deferred their admission to college to take a Gap Year went to college (after their Gap Year) at the same rate as those who accepted an offer and intended to go straight there (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). They also found that taking a Gap Year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012).” In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for Gap Year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013). (quoted from the website)

Well, now I am really interested–because I feared that kids who took a gap year might end up opting out of college (which would obviously not be my preference for them). It is also persuasive that gap-year kids with lower grades in high school graduated with higher college grades than similar students who went straight to college. Whether that finding is the result of academic knowledge actually gained during the gap year or of enhanced personal traits (like motivation and self-confidence) doesn’t really matter, I guess. So, there does not seem to be a personal or academic downside to a gap year–at least according to this research, these authors, and the American Gap Association.

3. The Design (and Expense) of a Worthwhile Gap Year

How then do Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe characterize an appropriate gap year experience? This is what they say:

Gap years need to be properly designed so they can challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens. Experiences that push students out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore new cultures and people from different backgrounds can create an impactful experience. They provide students an opportunity to reflect on a number of challenges and also allow for critical self-reflection that can root part of their identity in contributions to others.

In an ideal gap year experience, students get to develop actual relationships with people who are different from them. And when that happens, students can begin to see the world from different perspectives and learn about the complexity of social challenges. (quoted from the article)

Of course, that all sounds great. And if that can be done in the context of an internship near home or a volunteer slot in a nearby community, then I can get past one fear I have, which is that that gap years are just one more thing that benefit rich kids who can afford to fly off to some exotic locale or who can get a fascinating internship because of their parents’ connections.   Do you know, by the way, that there are companies that plan gap years for kids, including booking all of the travel? That can’t be cheap. Just like college admissions coaching, the notion of gap year experiences has spawned a whole industry. And that does worry me a bit.

Perhaps the title of a New York Times article last May by Mike McPhate says it all: “Malia Obama’s ‘Gap Year’ Is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend.” His article notes that the price tag on an international gap year program could run as high as $35,000.

But here are a couple of other ways to do it:

[U]niversity administrators . . . note that gap-year plans come in a variety of forms, some of them at no cost. AmeriCorpsCity Year, for example, pays students stipends to teach. Another popular program, Global Citizen Year, provides financial support–more than $6 million since 2010–for students to pursue experiential learning.

But those programs can be highly competitive. City Year, for example, says it selects only about one in four applicants. (quoted from the article)

So, although these programs sound promising, it’s like trying to get into college all over again. I am not sure how that helps kids cope with burnout and stress. And, as we might have expected, colleges themselves are getting into the game, according to Mr. McPhate’s article:

More universities have begun formal gap-year programs that take varying approaches to enrollment and the providing of aid, including Princeton, Tufts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Elon University.

At Princeton and North Carolina, for example, freshman-year enrollment is deferred and at least some financial help is provided, while Elon considers participants enrolled and charges its regular tuition. Another program offered by the New School in New York City also treats students as enrolled and offers up to a full year of academic credit.

Florida State University is among the latest campuses to start offering scholarships to gap-year students. Late last year, the public institution said applicants could get up to $5,000, and sent an email to the entire incoming [freshman] class urging them to consider deferring their freshman year. (quoted from the article)

Clearly, I am not understanding how a gap year turns into a year where tuition is charged and a full year of academic credit is given. That really makes it sound more like a study abroad program. And, in fact, there are already colleges (NYU is one) where freshmen can take their freshman year in another country–a real study abroad experience before you ever study at home.

4. So What?

So, what is the purpose of a gap year and who should think about taking one? Well, I think that the vocal proponents of gap years think everyone should take one, given the positive results that the research seems to show. I am probably a bit more restrained in my enthusiasm, but I am willing to be persuaded. Parents, I am afraid that you are going to have to do some research of your own if you think your senior would benefit from a year of experiences–paid or unpaid, nearby or far away–before starting into his or her college career.

Here are a few quotations from another New York Times article, written last year by Abigail Falik, who is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year (which we mentioned earlier) and who is, I am assuming, a bit partial to the notion of gap years.

 

What if college freshmen arrived on campus not burnt out from having been “excellent sheep” in high school, but instead refreshed, focused and prepared to take full advantage of the rich resources and opportunities colleges have to offer?

The “gap year,” a common practice across Europe and Australia, has yet to take root in the United States. A primary barrier is the stigma we associate with the term–it conveys privilege and frivolity and is often viewed either as a luxury for a select few, or remediation for kids who didn’t get into the college of their choice.

And yet, the research shows undeniable, positive impacts in terms of increased maturity, confidence and achievement. A recent Middlebury study showed that students who take a year off before arriving outperform their peers in their academic and extracurricular engagement on campus. . . .

Given its known benefits, it’s time to rebrand the “gap year” as anything but a “gap.” When used intentionally, the year before college can be a bridge, a launch pad and a new rite of passage. It’s the students who find the courage to step off the treadmill–replacing textbooks with experience and achievement with exploration–who are best prepared for life after high school. And a growing number of colleges are taking notice.

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s undergraduate admissions dean, wrote a manifesto about the need for students to take time off before college. Rick Shaw, Stanford’s undergraduate admissions dean, now speaks about the value of non-linear paths and the learning and growth that come from risk taking and failure, as opposed to perfect records. (quoted from the article)

Well, if I had not been sure that the notion of a gap year was an issue in higher education when I started this episode, I am pretty sure now. Parents, start your research!

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