With many traditional colleges remaining virtual in fall 2020, students are beginning to wonder if they should take a gap year.
Interest in taking a college gap year has skyrocketed because of the coronavirus. But is it the right decision for students?
About one in six high school seniors definitely or most likely will change their plans to attend college this fall because of COVID-19, according to a survey by Art & Science Group, a higher education market research firm. Of the 1,171 students surveyed, 16% said they would take a gap year.
Taking a gap year — an extended break from studies where students typically travel, volunteer, or gain work experience — has gained popularity among students facing the potential for online-only classes in the fall. Students are pushing back against paying the same tuition price for an in-person experience when classes are virtual.
But the coronavirus makes it a complicated decision. Experts recommend students carefully consider the pros and cons of staying in school and taking a gap year.
What Is a Gap Year?
A gap year is an extended break from academics to pursue other interests, which might include travel, work, and internships. Students take up to a year off after high school, between undergraduate and graduate school, or after graduation before starting their careers.
Students can do gap years independently; with companies and organizations; or through colleges and universities. Many gap years take place overseas and involve social service, cultural exchange, and language immersion in developing countries.
Students can also join programs based in the U.S., such as programs offered through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which typically involve volunteer service.
The Pros and Cons of a Gap Year in 2020
Gap years offer students the chance to recharge from years of schooling, figure out a career path, and improve their independence. Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, said they often lead to better results in the classroom and help set students up for success in their careers.
"It's been postulated that students who take a gap year in this era are going to see radically high leadership and independent traits," Knight said.
President Barack Obama's daughter Malia Obama famously took a gap year before starting at Harvard College. Her 12-month journey to Spain, Peru, and Bolivia included volunteer work and environmental conservation.
But that was in 2016. Gap years have rapidly changed this year because of the coronavirus.
Dane Foust, vice president of student affairs at Salisbury University, said there are pros and cons between staying in school and taking a gap year. He suggests students weigh the differences before making hasty decisions.
"The student and their family need to create a robust plan," Foust said. "Their reason for doing a gap year needs to be thought through carefully."
Though he said a gap year could be productive for students who plan well, Foust is in favor of completing a degree as quickly as possible. Delaying that will keep students out of the job market or graduate school for another year.
"It's hard to say when the economy is going to turn around," he said. "It could potentially put a student at a disadvantage."
Knight sees it differently. He said a delay could give students room to see which careers adapt to the crisis.
"If the economics of careers have changed because of the pandemic, your delay may be a good idea," he said.
But it won't work if students don't carefully plan a gap year. He said students are likely to flounder if they don't come up with actionable goals to complete.
There's also a sense of urgency. Colleges often have gap year policies with strict deadlines for when students can defer enrollment. For many colleges, that date was June 1, Knight said.
Is a Gap Year Worth It Without Travel?
Students are probably wondering: Is a gap year worth it without travel?
Travel restrictions limit the upside of international programs — the most traditional option for a gap year. International travel is a primary focus for about 80% of gap year programs in the U.S., Knight said. But travel restrictions have forced those groups to suspend operations or go remote.
In the meantime, some have adapted cross-cultural experiences into online academies, but online programs are a downgrade for students who would have otherwise traveled to countries on multiple continents.
"We are going to see concessions give way," Knight said. "They're going to give up some cross-cultural experiences and interactions with another human being."
Knight said a gap year at home could be as meaningful as doing one abroad. Remote or not, if a gap year has strong foundational values — volunteer work, exploring different careers, or working in general — students will find opportunities for personal growth.
"Gap years at their core will remain the same," he said. "If you can build in a cross-cultural experience when you're volunteering, that tends to do well. But we're seeing some of that adapting to online environments."
William Deresiewicz — a political, cultural, and higher education author — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it's time to rethink what a gap year should involve. A start would be to stop assuming the best thing to do is travel abroad.
"To be sure, an overseas gap year can be a very fine thing, and benefiting others is always a worthy goal," he wrote. "But you do not need to go abroad to make the world a better place."
Deresiewicz pointed out worthy domestic programs that will help fellow Americans in a time of need. They include CNCS programs under the umbrella of AmeriCorps: City Year, Volunteers in Service to America, and the National Civilian Community Corps.
Two Democratic senators recently introduced a bill that would increase the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to as many as 500,000. The programs involve rebuilding trails in national parks, responding to natural disasters, and working as mentors to disadvantaged youths.
International Programs Adapt to COVID-19
The coronavirus has thrown most gap year programs off course, especially those that operate in different countries, but that doesn't mean international programs have gone away.
Knight is encouraged by the efforts of groups to infuse other cultures into remote programs.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Knight said. "We're seeing some incredibly innovative programs coming online."
Amigos de las Americas recently launched a six-week online program called Community Impact Project, which includes virtual gatherings with members of Amigos' network in Latin America. Similarly, Global Citizen Year is offering a semester-long online academy that will connect 2020 high school graduates with peers from around the world.
Both aim to build skills in cultural connections, project development, and personal leadership. Knight said these types of remote programs are the next best thing for students who want cross-cultural experiences.
Amigos de las Americas took a survey of its current and past gap year students to see what they valued most about their experience, Knight said.
"The overwhelming response was, 'We just really want the cross-cultural experience,'" he said. "They would rather have it be online than not at all. That's exactly what they're winding up to do."
A Gap Year Is Not for Everyone
Foust, of Salisbury University, is not opposed to students taking a gap year during this crisis, but he cautions against doing it for the wrong reasons.
"They're afraid they're not going to get the robust residential experience, and their fallback would be a gap year," Foust said. "I'd urge people to think more clearly through that."
Foust said students should have clear goals in mind that will advance their careers and long-term life plans. If a gap year can't accomplish that, he said it might be best to stay in school.
There's also a question of maturity. Not all students are ready for an experience outside the confines of structured education.
"It takes a special person to take that leap into the unknown if you will," he said. "If a student is a little bit intimidated, they can lose some of the value of that experience."
Knight agrees that taking a gap year shouldn't be a fallback.
"Most students overwhelmingly report that they're grateful they had the experience," he said, "but they're not right for every student right now."
More Affordable Gap Year Options Are Available
A gap year can be pricey. Companies with structured programs have charged up to $55,000 in the past, Knight said, though the bonus is traveling the world.
While online programs may not offer the same level of adventure and cultural immersion, Knight said they could be cheaper and more accessible.
The full gap year cost for Global Citizen Year — which usually operates in Africa, Asia, and South America — is $32,500. Its online academy, which runs from Aug. 31 to Dec. 18, has a sliding tuition scale of $500-$7,500.
Meanwhile, CNCS programs like AmeriCorps pay students for their work. In exchange for volunteering full or part-time for 10-12 months with local and national nonprofit groups, students receive up to $4,725 to pay for college or student loans.
There's also the inexpensive option of choosing an independent gap year. Students have the freedom to pursue whatever they like, such as gaining fluency in a new language or exploring a career through informational and online interviews.
They could also get creative by pursuing personal challenges, such as going on a 200-mile bike ride or solo camping for a week.
Knight said independent gap year students in the past have also strived for merit-based recognition, such as The Duke of Edinburgh Award. The award involves completing tasks such as helping the community or environment; planning, training for, and completing an expedition; and improving practical and social skills.
While it comes with extra responsibility, Knight said the mission is still the same as a structured program.
"The idea is to focus on three or four goals or skills you want to cultivate," he said.
The coronavirus has rapidly changed what it means to take a gap year. Traveling abroad is off the table while international borders remain closed. But that doesn't mean you can't find meaningful ways to spend a gap year, whether it's on your own or through a variety of programs. The key to success is preparation and planning.
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
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