A Bridge to the Future

Consider the Benefit of Gap Year

By Angela Switzer

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When President Obama’s daughter, Malia, announced her decision to take a gap year instead of attending Harvard in the fall, the news was inspiring to students who had never even considered the option. Perhaps Malia is taking the advice of Harvard’s admissions team, which encourages students to take a year off before starting their college careers, or perhaps she just doesn’t want to leave the White House until her father finishes his term. Who knows? Harvard has been recommending its students take that time off for more than 40 years and normally, 80 to 110 of their students take the advice. Why? The main reason is burnout. Many young people have been stressed out with their educational careers and pursuit of college admissions through high school and could really use a break. Research from Middlebury College shows that students who take a gap year before entering college actually perform better and have higher GPA’s than those going straight into university.

Gap year programs vary greatly and run the gamut of cultural immersion, farming practices, inner city education, outdoor leadership, and so many more. Options include travel to places as exotic as Botswana and Tibet.

While there are many organizations that provide structured programs for a gap year and even a professional organization that accredits these programs, students can fashion their own gap year with a little research and creativity. Gap years can last a year, a semester or only a couple of months. The point is to not spend that time enrolled in classes at the community college or at any institution. The goal is to learn by doing, by engaging in the world, if possible on a more global level. This eye-opening experience may provide students with the insight to discover who they are and where they are headed, while later avoiding the trap of entering a career simply because of someone else’s expectations. Students usually arrive after this time off, more focused and ready to embark on their college careers with a clearer sense of direction.

While Europeans, especially Brits, have been sending their students off on gap years for quite some time, Americans have been slow to embrace the idea.

As parents, it can be hard for us to imagine letting our teenagers take a whole year off before moving on to college. What if they never enroll? What if they never come home? But if we trust in our children, knowing that we have done the best we can to prepare them for what’s ahead, then a small delay in education is no big deal. Those of us who were fortunate enough to travel during our young adult years will surely attest to the value of a cross cultural experience.

The only drawback to some of these programs (and it’s a big one) is the cost of a year abroad. Who pays for this? Some of the structured programs cost as much as $30,000, which is definitely astronomical when you are looking ahead to paying four years of college tuition. Luckily, there is financial aid for most gap year programs, and experienced staff to help you navigate the process. In 2015, AGA Members and Provisional Members gave away a combined total of roughly $2,800,000 in scholarships and needs-based grants. If paying tuition is clearly out of the question, there are other programs where students work to alleviate daily living costs.

The best approach for setting up a gap year is to get the college application process out of the way first. Help your teen apply to college- they should accept the academic offer that best suits them. Then begin the process of deferring matriculation to the following year. Most colleges will accommodate the request, but it is important to find out the details before making any plans.

Then the fun begins. The world is your child’s oyster! Delight in the stories, the hardships, and the metamorphosis during this special year.

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