College gap years: The educational and financial benefits of taking a breather

This op-ed runs on the education page Monday. (By the way, I am always looking for relevant and timely education op-eds for the Monday page. If you want to write one, I have two possible spots on each Monday’s education page, one for a 500-word piece and one for a 900-word piece. Send me something. mdowney@ajc.com)

This interesting piece was written by Gwyeth T. Smith Jr., a college admissions consultant in Oakdale, N.Y., was the subject of the book “Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges — and Find Themselves.”

Parents of high school seniors across the country have hired me as an admissions consultant. They want assurances that their children will be attending top colleges a year from now.

Again and again, I say: “I hope not.”

To their surprise, I explain that I’d rather see most of these young men and women far from a campus for a while. I urge them to bus tables in a restaurant, apprentice for an architect or pull weeds on a community farm. In their free time, I add, they should devour a stack of great books.

During nearly four decades as a high school guidance counselor, I had generally recommended a “gap year” only to students who needed to mature. But in this wheezing economy, when jobs are precious and even state colleges are increasingly expensive, I have become a believer in the educational and financial benefits of taking a breather.

I’ve watched too many students get caught up in the admissions arms race and spend their high school years preening for colleges. They rocket through advanced-placement classes; they push their SAT or ACT scores to the 98th percentile.

Yet, they don’t slow down to reflect on who they are and who they want to become. Soon after plunging into their dream engineering or pre-med program, many realize that they aren’t cut out to be engineers, doctors and the like.

Others have been hurtling from activity to activity since preschool and can’t deal with unstructured hours. They waste their first year of college watching Jon Stewart online when they should be reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.”
Pausing for 12 months also gives a family a chance to make a realistic budget. The average student-loan debt among graduating college seniors last year was nearly $23,200; I’ve met plenty of middle-class youngsters who are shackled by $70,000 or more in debt before they even begin graduate school.

Several European countries promote a “13th year” that allows teenagers to earn money, take some courses and travel. President Obama inadvertently gave a boost to the gap year by increasing Pell Grant awards for students from low- and moderate-income families next year. Some families are reportedly delaying college until the extra money is available.

American colleges need to encourage gappers. Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., allows admitted students to defer entrance for a year, after submitting a plan for their activities that year, and nearly 7 percent take up the offer. The son of Reed President Colin Diver took a year to learn carpentry.
H. Keith H. Brodie, a psychiatrist and president emeritus of Duke University, told me recently that he believes freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because brain development continues into late adolescence. He advocates gapping so long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth and a commitment to do public service.

There is a bonus for colleges and students in making the gap year widespread: It will ease the stress of the admissions process. Students who don’t get into their first- or second-choice school during 12th grade will have another shot. Or maybe — just maybe — the extra maturity will allow them to realize that college is about the fit, not the brand.

Ultimately, the gap year could put private consultants like me out of business. That’s a fine side benefit. It would make the admissions game more equitable for students, no matter when they decide to go on to college.

23 comments Add your comment

Lee

November 22nd, 2009
11:33 pm

One thing to consider before you advise Jr. to take a year off….

Many college students are covered under their parents health care plan. Many plans allow a dependent to remain on their health care plan up to age 24 PROVIDED THEY ARE FULL TIME STUDENTS.

high school teacher

November 23rd, 2009
5:29 am

I was going to post your very comment, Lee. Statistics must have changed since my college days; then, students who took “a year off” typically never went to college.

Wounded Warrior

November 23rd, 2009
9:38 am

I was a full time student, with two part time jobs. I flunked out because I couldn’t handle the burden of working 40 hours and taking full load. I lost my health insurance coverage for not being a full time student…this was before the lottery in GA. I joined the military and got everything I needed. If you spend a year overseas you will mature very fast. I did.

Wounded Warrior

November 23rd, 2009
9:40 am

I did return to college and now hold an accounting degree. I returned after serving my country and starting my family.

MyOpinion

November 23rd, 2009
10:08 am

I think the gap year is a good idea. I know I would have loved to take a year off to travel the US. If the gap year can be made into a program like the co-op program, where on paper the student is viewed as a full-time student while he/she takes the semester off to work, then there should not be any problems.

oldtimer

November 23rd, 2009
11:26 am

A Gap Year would have only worked in my family if the child had a job with insurance. I would not support someone to take a year and travel around. Do that when you can pay for it yourself.

gapper

November 23rd, 2009
12:23 pm

I was forced to take the gap year before starting college. In the end it worked out very well for me.

Martina

November 23rd, 2009
12:36 pm

I hope this proves true, as our 19 year old son just informed us that he’s taking a break from college to “experience the real-world”. I’ve been very upset about the whole thing – I don’t see him going back, and it sure as heck won’t be on our dime again! I think once he gets a dose of “real-world” he’ll regret this decision, but who knows? The health insurance has also been an issue because it’s going to cost him an arm and a leg to buy his own. He won’t ever be able to get ahead on a job with a high school diploma. I just worry about his future, especially for a guy!

bob

November 23rd, 2009
12:48 pm

I think taking a year off before starting college is crazy. They will never to school. Go, to college get the degree and still have plenty of time to experience life.

Old School

November 23rd, 2009
1:09 pm

In addition to the loss of health insurance, some kids lose child support income. I know of cases where the divorce decree was written so that support ended when the child turned 18 or was not enrolled full-time in school.

Sarge

November 23rd, 2009
1:14 pm

Good for you, Warrior! Your experience sounds familiar. Two weeks after my first ETS, I awoke in my dorm room sweating bullets over the memory of my 1SG reminding the troops what would happen if we were late to formation!

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Amused

November 23rd, 2009
4:33 pm

I agree with many of the bloggers, the loss of child support, insurance and focus. Many Moms know each of our children very well, and if one decides to find him/herself, they will be old and grey and still trying to find who they really are.

This article is so awash in small town mentality of life is a white picket fence written by someone who caters to that market. The author is scary, and makes me wonder how successful as a consultant she is. Many families in today’s economy cannot afford to send the senior/gapper anywhere to go find themselve, except to an institution of learning where there is a least some help with the finances and hope that in going forward when the economy improves, the kid will be more marketable then and become more self sufficient.

If college educated professional experienced adults aka parents are sitting at home unemployed wondering where they will get the next few dollars and how long can they keep the lights on and rooves over the families’ heads, who has it to allow the senior/gapper time off to find himself/herself? Get real. Life is not always this white picket fences that many of these writers protray..

Current economic reality is that with only a high school diploma, the only jobs they will be getting are minimum wage and there are extreme compeititions for these jobs. The parents are unemployed and the young one is being encouraged to put together a recipe for disaster in taking time off from making oneself more marketable in an increasingly competitive global work force, we all know that given the culture today few have the maturity or interest to go back to college once they experience life. Acceptance to colleges are more competitive each year, how is the gapper going to compete with kids who have not wasted a year trying to find oneself?

I would love to meet the firm of architect who would give a “drop out” from real life a chance to be an apprentice. Current trend is such professional organizations hire college graduates to do apprenticeship programs BEFORE they get advanced and professional degrees.

Cindy

November 24th, 2009
5:04 am

A gap year is very popular here in Australia, and because health insurance isn’t a issue, students frequently do take a year off. The key is to secure a university place right out of high school, but defer for a year. The commitment is still there because the university and the student have an agreement. One benefit of a gap year is that students mature a bit before embarking a degree in basket weaving…which gets you nowhere but $50K – 100K in debt and no job when your done.

A solid option

November 24th, 2009
9:29 am

Working in a national park can be a great option for students and families considering a gap year. The student will get to travel the U.S., will earn money, and meet a wide variety of people. Working for a company like Xanterra would allow a student to work in one national park for the summer and transfer to another in the winter. Employees of these programs include but are not limited to college students, international students, and retirees. The experiences the student will have will help them form a solid plan for college. Parent’s can rest easy because the student is working 40 hours a week with a deduction for room and board (a small taste of the real world). Housing in parks like Yellowstone is set up dormitory style (another intro to college life) and health Care is also provided by the company.

I worked under this program in a forced “gap year” when I could not find employment after college. I do agree the student should accept a position with a University and defer that choice until their gap year is complete.

JLuton

November 24th, 2009
10:39 am

I think the idea of a gap year is fantastic. I felt like I rushed through college, despite having graduated with two degrees from UGA, and upon getting out of college I had no idea what the real world had in store for me. I have, however, found my way and I wish more than anything that I could revert back to the days of college. A gap year provides many students with an appreciation for how things really are and I certainly would have changed my plans in school had I known what the real world was like. Whether that gap year takes place before or after college is a personal decision. After I graduated from college, I went backpacking through Europe and I met many young people my age from other countries who taking a gap year, exploring the world and doing great things through community service and volunteer activities. It’s not the right decision for everyone, however, but for many students and young adults it can be a life changing experience that directs you towards more attainable goals, giving you solid footing for pursuing a career that you’re passionate about.

Just couldn't let it get by....GT fan

November 24th, 2009
1:46 pm

Two degrees from UGA…weren’t THOSE your gap years?

Just couldn't let it get by....GT fan

November 24th, 2009
2:17 pm

I’m sorry…I really tried to resist but it was just too easy. Actually ours is a house divided…so I have to take and give both ways.

Mind_The_Gap

November 25th, 2009
5:18 pm

I took two years off after graduating high school. I worked, volunteered, and read several books. My guidance counselors all pushed me to go to college immediately after high school adding extra pressure and lowering my feeling of self worth because, unlike my classmates, I opted to work and figure out which options were best for me. The author, Gwyeth T. Smith Jr., truly knows what she is talking about. I wish that I had a guidance counselor or someone like her when making the alternate decision to delay pursuing higher education. Because I took those years off, I know that I know myself better and have a better appreciation of a dollar. I have become more grateful and have a better understanding of the amount of hard work that my parents do to provide for my family. I am now a freshman in an affordable community college and I love it. The insurance coverage was the biggest downside but thankfully I was able to find insurance targeted to my specific age group that is reasonably priced. I don’t think delaying college is for everyone but I know that it has helped me. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” Robert Frost.

elementary school teacher

November 27th, 2009
9:25 pm

I think the idea of a gap year is ideal for many students. I went straight to college and I do not regret that decision, but my brother ended up going to college for two years, joining the work force, and then completing his degree. He would have greatly benefitted from a gap year or two. Some people are simply not ready to go to school immediately after high school. With our given economy, I think it is an even better idea. I know I matured a lot during my years in college. It took a while to decide who I was and what I wanted out of life and my college degree. Although I don’t regret my decision, I believe I would have benefitted from a gap year. I even had some offers to be a nanny. If I could have been accepted to college, not lost any scholarships, and deferred my college experience for a year, I would have done it.

Sarge

November 28th, 2009
6:11 pm

Martina, I know it’s a Mom’s job to worry about her son; just into my 60s, I’m extremely fortunate to have a Mom who, every time I visit, worries that she might not have enough food for her “little boy”. Let him “see the world”. It might be from a Vespa in Italy, a tour boat on the Seine, or a deck on a carrier. Either way, when he decides what to do (he may well have had already decided), you’ll know…just smile and support. Godspeed, Mom!

Tracey

June 2nd, 2010
3:28 pm

Enter your comments here

Tracey

June 2nd, 2010
3:46 pm

I am currently on my second “gap year ” and am loving it. I do plan on a college education but when I am ready. In these past two years I have found myself and know exactly what I want to study. I have never been given money and have worked since I was 16. Parents, why do you believe you should pay for everything your child does? Make them work for it. It builds character and knowledge of the “real world” that we talk so much about. Yes insurance is an issue, I for one don’t have any. When I get sick I pay for my own doctor bills. It sucks, but I learn how to eat right, wash my hands etc. so prevent getting sick. While on my gap years, I have worked and traveled in South America and South Africa. I don’t know many people at the age of 20 that can say that. I have more experience than many college students and I must say I can’t wait to start studying. So just because you ” took a year off” does not mean your child will never go to college. Like my high school counselors told me. I would like to see her face in a few years. I think I might make an appoint to tell her my accomplishments. Anyways yes Gap Years are the best thing any Senior can do. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”-Saint Augustine