Gap Year: The Growing Appeal of Not Going Right to College

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In September, Amy Huynh, a recent high school graduate who was accepted to Colby College in Maine, visited some of her childhood friends during move-in weekend at UCLA. They’re newly minted freshmen, ready to embark on an exciting college career. But Huynh is beginning a different adventure: instead of attending Colby, she’s mentoring middle schoolers in southern Los Angeles for a year.

“A lot of people did not agree with what I was doing,” Huynh says of her decision to defer college enrollment. “College is getting so expensive now, so I said, Why not? College isn’t going anywhere.”

Huynh is a corps member in City Year, a service organization that places young people age 17 to 24 in urban schools to work with teachers and mentor students. She’s also one of the thousands of members of the high school class of 2012 who chose to take a break from school — a so-called gap year — instead of immediately enrolling in college.

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About 1.2% of first-time college freshmen choose to defer enrollment for a year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. What these students choose to do with their time varies widely, from expensive study-abroad programs to volunteer programs like City Year to staying at home and saving up for college.

“In 1980 no one was talking gap year,” says Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a company that offers parents and students consulting in choosing the appropriate gap-year program. “I’ve watched this whole concept go basically from its inception to present day. I wouldn’t call it mainstream, but there’s way more awareness and support, and colleges are now beginning to endorse it as a really positive thing.”

With over 20 years of experience researching gap years, Bull has seen students work everywhere from outdoor-education centers to Scottish castles to elephant sanctuaries. She says the students that go to her are often looking for a break from the academic grind. The gap year can provide young people with an opportunity to learn what type of adult they want to be. It can also help them gain more focus so they don’t have to spend extra years — and tuition dollars — figuring out the answer to that question on a college campus. “I’m definitely hearing from families that it’s harder to consider these colleges’ tuitions with a student who seems so uncertain,” she says.

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For Huynh, the decision was about both personal development and economics. While some gap-year programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars, City Year is free and provides a living stipend. She’ll get a $5,000 scholarship for participating in City Year that she can apply to her Colby expenses. She also plans to write to the school and ask it to join the Give-a-Year partnership program, through which schools provide scholarships to City Year corps members. “That would be awesome,” Huynh says.

Melanie Brennand Mueller, vice president of City Year’s recruitment and admissions, says about 10% of corps members are high school graduates taking gap years, and they hope to recruit more in the future. “They’re idealistic, they’re highly talented and they’re excited to do something meaningful before college,” she says. Other volunteer programs, like the Student Conservation Association and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, also offer students a way to experience different parts of the U.S. or the world on the cheap.

Bob Clagett, a former director of admissions at Middlebury College, says taking a gap year can help students gain a renewed focus on academics. “By stepping off the treadmill, they frequently remind themselves of what their education is all about,” he says. “They kind of reinvent themselves.”

He’s done research to back up the claim. At Middlebury, students who took gap years were found to have higher GPAs than those who didn’t, even when controlling for things like wealth and high school achievement. A study at the University of North Carolina yielded similar results.

Huynh, for one, thinks the experience will help her when she finally arrives on campus. She wakes up at 6 a.m. each day to deal with rambunctious preteens — and at times during the school day is the only adult in the classroom. “I’ve personally become more driven,” she says. “Being in a high-stress environment especially, I think that it forces people to grow up really fast.”

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Selective schools typically allow accepted students to defer their enrollment for a year or two, so it makes sense for high schoolers to explore college and gap-year opportunities concurrently. Some schools are now even offering formalized versions of gap-year programs. Princeton’s Bridge Year Program, for instance, allows selected students to participate in a nine-month community-service program abroad. Other schools are partnering with service organizations like City Year and offering scholarships to students who participate.

Some students also use the gap year as a way to bolster their résumé, reapplying to colleges with some post-high-school experience under their belt. “It’s not a guarantee in terms of getting into college, but it has certainly helped a number of schools in the past,” Bull says. She mentions one student who was initially waitlisted from Brown University but then was accepted during her gap-year teaching in Costa Rica and Argentina.

The idea that formal education has to be a sprint from age 5 to 21 seems to be changing. Says Clagett: “Getting a job for a year, even if it’s flipping hamburgers, still can be a productive experience and can help students just do something other than think about what they have to do to get into college.”