Delaying College in Tough Economic Times – Is it Time for a Gap Year?

Sunday, Mar. 22nd 2009 5:57 PM

There has been a long tradition of students from European countries taking a year off from school to work and travel. The year away, dubbed a gap year, has customarily been taken upon the completion of high school and prior to starting college.

The number of Americans taking time to work and travel has always been far less. In fact, the concept on this side of the pond tends to be associated only with upper-middle-class students from private schools.

But amidst the worst economic recession in decades, some are suggesting that it may well be time for more students to give greater consideration to the gap-year experience. Add to that fact the potential of a revamped financial aid system and it is clear that the gap year concept could well be a great choice for many more Americans this year.

Benefits of a Gap Year

Cats-Eye-ViewWhen considering a gap year, most students envision using the time to travel and to gain additional work experience. Occasionally, some individuals also seek to improve their academic preparation during their year away from school.

The benefits of a gap year are well-documented. Students taking a year off before entering college “mature earlier than their peers who come straight to college from high school.” Taking the time to travel or work full-time will expose students to a number of challenges that are distinct from those experiences one obtains in the school setting. The result is the chance to develop additional personal skills, making it easier for you to handle the social and intellectual stresses that come with college demands.

In addition, students who take a gap year are able to get a better grip on what it is they want to do with the rest of their life. A gap year is particularly helpful to students who are unsure where they want to attend school or the course of study they want to pursue.

Experiencing a gap year enables students to explore different job options, a process that ensures they are able to better determine their choice of college major. In many instances, the gap year also helps a student decide if college is really in the cards for them. A year of work and answering to a supervisor can give a person a new perspective regarding four years of additional study.

Lastly, if students are concerned about their overall academic preparation, a gap year with a focus on sharpening academic skills can be exceedingly helpful. Taking a couple of adult education classes or community college courses are an inexpensive way to sharpen those math, writing and technology skills. They can also give students a taste of what the college environment will consist of, again helping a student make a more informed decision.

Effect of Financial Crisis

In writing for the NY Times, Johnathan D. Glater offers his thoughts as to how the economic recession and the proposed policies of the Obama administration could well make the gap year an even better choice for certain students this year.

President Obama’s college proposals, legislation that offers “the most sweeping changes in federal college aid programs in decades” according to Glater, include significant increases in aid for needy students. If passed, the legislation would offer more fixed rate, low-interest student loans as well as larger grants for those students who qualify.

tacitrequiemGlater notes the changes must first go through Congress. Therefore, if they are to be approved, the expanded financial support for students would not take effect until July 2010. Ultimately, waiting a year could put a student in a position to access these additional funds.

Though likely to be a relatively small increase, Glater goes on to note that if the student applying represents the oldest in the family, waiting another year could place that individual in college with a younger sibling or siblings for more overlapping years. With benefits also contingent on the number of family members in school at the same time, waiting a year could well positively impact a family’s overall outside support significantly.

In addition, Glater notes that asking to defer admission for a year, something colleges generally are very willing to do, could be critical for those families with parents worried about their current job security or who have been negatively impacted by the financial downturn. Irrespective of the job issue, Glater notes that all families will face greater challenges securing credit and college loans in the current environment.

Add to that fact the impact of the economic downturn on everyone’s college savings plans and now might simply not be the time to begin taking on the substantial costs associated with attending college.

Will Times Be Better?

Of course, there is the possibility that the Obama plan will not pass Congress. There is also the potential that our economic funk may not be over. Certainly, while everyone is hopeful that better times are just around the corner, we are experiencing a more severe economic downturn than anyone could have previously imagined.

Glater does offer a balanced view, quoting Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College in Iowa:

“There’s a real possibility things could be worse,” warn Allen. “What if the markets have actually dropped further, and the kind of economic news coming out suggests that unemployment will continue to rise and endowments for the foreseeable futures will remain flat?”

In other words, the competition for funds could be even greater a year from now. Therefore, today’s economic difficulties should not cause students to consider a gap year if a student has not considered the idea previously.

Is the Gap Year Right for You?

chichachaClearly, taking a year off from school has documented benefits. Another year to gain experience and to earn some additional funds are two great ways to help students be better prepared for the rigors of college.

Such a year can help students confirm whether or not college is truly the next step for them. It can also be extremely helpful towards clarifying their potential career goals and therefore shed great light on their choice of college and major.

And a year away from full-time school can also be used to help improve academic preparation should a student be in need of such.

One may then add to these traditional benefits the two points raised by Glater, the issues brought about by our current economic downturn and the aid proposals of President Obama. Collectively, they represent a strong basis for considering a gap year.

However, making such a choice based solely on Glater’s financial concerns may well be nothing more than a gamble. Therefore, students should seriously consider a gap year only if they believe that the experience will better prepare them for their future, whether that future will consist of a move straight into the workforce or the pursuit of a college diploma.

Simply stated, a gap year is not for everyone. But the rationale for taking one has grown given the recent economic developments in our country.

Editors Note: For more on the gap year concept including help with determining possible gap year experiences, peruse one of the many Gap Program websites available on the web. A search on the phrase gap year will provide a wealth of sites that discuss the concept further while a search of gap year programs will bring you to sites that assist students with a gap year experience.

Flickr photos courtesy of Cats-Eye-View, tacitreqieum and Chichacha.

Posted by Thomas | in Advice, College Life | 2 Comments »

2 comments on "Delaying College in Tough Economic Times – Is it Time for a Gap Year?"

  • While this all makes a lot of sense, I would also caution your readers not to let one gap year turn into another and another. Sometimes taking a year off can make it harder to get back into the “education” routine.

  • I comment on the same article in my blog ( Most of the students I know (and I have been working with high school students as a full-time SAT tutor and college advisor for 22 years) do not find themselves or improve their skills when they take off a year from college. They get more lost, more unmotivated, less apt to start college now out of sync with their high school friends. Furthermore, every year they delay means college will be more expensive and there will be less aid available.

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