Gap Year: Should You Take One?

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – While most students in his high school class were busy settling into their college dorms and purchasing textbooks for their freshman courses, Zander Rounds was embarking on a year-long adventure that would take him to eight different countries around three continents and back to the U.S. again for a tour of the East Coast.

Rounds, who graduated from Brookline High School in Massachusetts in 2009, decided to buck the traditional path of education and deferred his acceptance to Georgetown University for a year so he could enter an international program hosted by Thinking Beyond Borders, one of the better-known organizations catering to those students who take a year off between high school and college.

“I had a really strong desire to explore the world and break with the normal track,” said Rounds, who is now finishing up his freshman year at Georgetown.

Sure enough, he studied international development in Costa Rica, took agroforestry lessons in Ecuador, pursued public health in South Africa and education in China, all while living with host families in each country. These experiences were more than eye-opening for him, and when Rounds finally made his way to Georgetown he decided to switch from the school of Arts and Sciences to the Foreign Services school so he could pursue a certificate in international development.

Though many students in the U.K. and Australia take time off between high school and college, it’s relatively uncommon for American students to follow in Rounds’ footsteps and take this gap year. Just 1.2% of college freshmen in 2010 had taken a year off after high school, based on surveys conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, but according to those in the education planning business, even that small number represents a big increase in popularity from several years ago.

“We’ve seen gap years go from being an unheard of option to a much more mainstream option in recent years,” said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, the first independent gap year counseling group in the U.S. Bull notes that when the company launched in 1980, no one she spoke with even knew what a gap year was. Now, she says, “I don’t need to explain what a gap year is to people, I just have to tell what programs are available.”

Indeed, the number of programs available to students during their year off has increased significantly in recent years. Kathy Cheng, who helps run USA Gap Year Fairs, a national organization for advertising gap year programs, notes that when the fairs first launched five years ago, there were just 12 participating programs. That number has since tripled, she says.

Part of the reason for the gradual shift in popularity is that several prominent universities like Harvard, Princeton and New York University have come to embrace the idea of a gap year. Harvard’s office of admissions actually “encourages” incoming students to take time off and notes that some 50-70 students defer admission each year (though this number includes students who opt to do a two-year tour with the military.) Princeton, for its part, actually took the initiative to partner with several international organizations to place incoming students in meaningful programs abroad for a year before coming to campus, a plan they refer to as the “bridge year” program.

But even with the growing acceptance of gap years, many parents and high school teachers continue to have reservations about the idea.

“My friends definitely expressed a lot of jealousy about my decision, but some of my teachers were surprised and didn’t really understand what I was doing,” Rounds said of the reaction he received. “My chemistry teacher in particular really wanted me to go to college and continue doing chemistry. She never told me not to [take a gap year], but she just didn’t get it.”

The Pros and Cons of Taking a Year Off

Every student has his or her own reason for wanting some time off before college, but according to those who work in the gap year industry, these motivations generally fall into one of three categories: Some choose to do it because they’re not sure if college is right for them or because they need more time to decide what they want to study; others know for sure what they want to study but are eager for the opportunity to challenge themselves by pursuing it in the real world first; then there are those who are set on going to school but just feel too burnt out from high school to go straight into an undergraduate program.

This last factor has been particularly common in recent years, as more college freshmen reported poor emotional health in 2010 than any previous year, due to a mix of financial stress and being overloaded with work. The gap year offers these students the opportunity to rejuvenate before committing to four or more years of intense study.

Still, it’s not hard to see why some would be concerned about the prospect of taking a year off. Not only does the decision deviate from the conventional route, but many gap year programs cost thousands of dollars, which can be difficult for a family struggling to put their child through four years of college. Plus there’s always the concern that a gap year might turn into a gap decade, as students choose to forfeit college altogether.

If all that isn’t enough to give a parent pause, there’s also the fact that in many cases, a gap year means throwing students into the real world at a very young age, for better or worse.

Peter DeBartolo, who now works as the director of global and civic engagement at Adelphi University, took a gap year in 2002 to live in Spain and travel through Europe, but ended up having a particularly stressful experience, at least in the beginning. The gap year program DeBartolo went through, which he preferred not to name, botched the paperwork to enroll him in a school abroad and failed to arrange for bilingual advisers in the country to help him, facts he only found out about once he had arrived in Spain. It was left to him to arrange his own plans, in a language he didn’t actually speak, though he would soon learn to be fluent in it.

"It was definitely a rough experience for an 18-year-old,” DeBartolo said. “But it's still probably the best thing I've ever done."

Other students who completed gap year programs experienced a disconnect with students in their classes once they returned to college, in part because they were a year older than their peers.

“It was really weird coming in freshman year because I felt older than all of the other freshmen,” said Gretchen Curry, a sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University, who took a gap year in 2007 to pursue a literacy program at AmeriCorps where most of her peers were actually several years older than her. “I didn’t identify as much with people of my year, so I had to adjust back to that.”

But for most students, the benefits of taking a gap year far outweigh the costs.

One study published last year in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students who took a gap year were more motivated than their peers, a point emphasized by each of the students we spoke with. Aside from this, students may also have an easier time adapting to life after college if they’ve taken some time to live on their own at some point.

“After college, they often have an easier transition into the working world than non-gap year peers because they have already had a half-step out into the world during their gap year, and they know they can handle it,” said Bull, from the Center for Interim Programs.

The Best Gap Year Programs

As difficult as it can be to pick out colleges, it’s at least as hard to pick out gap year programs, if for no other reason than they are comparatively lesser known. Still, several stand out from the pack.

Thinking Beyond Borders

Few programs provide the incredible range of experiences as this one does. Thinking Beyond Borders offers a travel intensive gap year program where students travel in groups of 16, along with three teachers, to eight countries over the course of a year, ranging from Ecuador to India. The students live with host families, study global issues like the HIV epidemic and agricultural problems in the regions where they are unfolding, and meet with international groups like the United Nations and World Bank along the way, before coming back to the U.S. to create a presentation based on what they learned. The downside of the program, however, is the cost, as the price tag of $39,000 roughly equals a year’s tuition at many high-level colleges. Of course, that includes all travel expenses as well.

AmeriCorps City Year

If cost is a major issue, then programs like AmeriCorps’s City Year may be the best bet. City Year lets 17- to 24-year-olds spend 10 months volunteering in public education systems in one of 20 locations around the U.S. The program is great for building civic engagement among students, costs nothing and provides the students with a small living stipend.

Student Conservation Association

If students are more interested in working with their hands and helping the environment, then they might consider signing up with the Student Conservation Association. Thousands of high school and college students volunteer for this program each year, which helps to restore natural habitats in national parks around the country. Students can intern with the program for anywhere from 12 to 52 weeks and all expenses are paid.

Bel Camino

Finally, if the student’s goal is actually just to unwind in a new and exciting location, Bel Camino offers just that. As part of this program, based in Sienna, Italy, students 18-24 live with an Italian family, learn the language, take group excursions around the country, and even have the option to take yoga classes. Each language course costs $435 and can earn students college credit, whenever they choose to leave the paradise of Italy and go back to school.

The trick when picking from any of these programs, according to Bull, is to call the programs you’re interested in and ask to speak with students who have participated in them in the past to grill them about their experiences.

Students, consider this your first real-world assignment.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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