In the first post of this series, I talked about how gap years are not commonplace in the US, but can be very beneficial for students as well as American society as a whole. In this post I will talk about what universities are doing to encourage students to take a gap year before entering college and in the next post I will look at one specific example of an organization whose goal is to make gap years universal.
As mentioned in the previous post, gap years have negative associations in the US, but some colleges are taking strides to reverse this stigma. University of North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and others have instituted programs to encourage students to take a gap year for travelling and volunteering around the world before they come to college. Even though the program at Princeton covers almost all costs, American students still “struggle with the idea of separating from the education fast track that parents and educators expect.” It is the norm to go straight into college from high school and it’s hard for students who have worked their whole lives to get into a good school to see a gap year as a viable option. There are many benefits of doing so, as already explained, but combating the negative view of not going straight to college will take a lot of effort on the part of universities.
Princeton’s program aims to start small and then eventually send a tenth or more of its incoming students to a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. They see this program as giving students a more international perspective, adding to their maturity and giving them a break from academic pressures. The president of Princeton called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school and giving them a year to regroup.” They plan not to charge tuition for the year abroad and offer financial assistance to those who need it. Proponents of the program say it allows students to discover themselves and the world before they enter college. Some say they enter college too young and immature and this would be a way to combat that while doing something constructive for the world.
Even college counselors, whose job it is to get high school students into good colleges, tell their clients to take a year off before they go back to school. One such counselor said she had previously only recommended gap years to students who needed to mature, but now is telling most of her students to follow this path. She says she sees students never slow down and breathe and think about the person they want to become before going to college. A psychiatrist at Duke says that freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because their brain continues to develop over this time period. He says taking a gap year is beneficial as long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth, and a commitment to do public service. When they finally come to campus the next fall they will be better prepared to succeed at the college level after living free from parents and the school environment for a while. They will also have a unique perspective on themselves and the world we live in that they would not have gained had they not taken a gap year.
Students who take gap years also have more real-world experience which gives them a leg-up on applying for internships and jobs while in college as well as after. With the job market as competitive as it is, it is important to stand out and this is a perfect way to do that. “Personal growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose” is something most students get from a gap year that they would not otherwise receive.
Many of these types of programs have aims of helping students in any financial situation still be able to take advantage of them. The program at Princeton uses need-based financial aid and nearly 100 students have participated thus far. UNC offers their students $7,500 for a gap year and Tufts’ program will cover housing, airfare, and visa fees which can add up to $30,000 or more.
These incentives seem to be working at least somewhat because in 2013, 40,000 American students took a gap year, which is a 20% increase compared to past years. But there is still a long way to go. Businesses catering to gap year programs have been booming because of this increased interest. One specifically, called Where There Be Dragons, has had its revenue doubled in the last year to almost $1 million.
Can outside organizations along with universities help students gain this international experience? Stay tuned for my last post in this series about one organization that is trying to do just that!