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Taking a Gap Year Before College: Good Idea?

This article was written by in Education. 25 comments.


In England and Australia, it is more common than in the United States for a student to take a year after high school to travel or experience the world before entering college. According to SmartMoney, it may not be such a bad idea.

The argument is that students who take a break from institutionalized education will come back to college — if they come back — with a fresh outlook on what they want to do with their life, their passions, and their attitude for learning.

This concept comes at a great expense. Delaying college for one year can mean increased tuition costs of 8% or more. In addition to higher education costs, the cost of the gap year can be large, depending on the activities the student chooses.

gapDelaying college for a year will also likely mean delaying the start of a career. The missed earnings in what would have been the first year of income, thanks to compounded interest, can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars forgone by the time retirement rolls around.

All things considered, I might have liked taking a gap year. For all I know, during that year, I might have changed my mind about my career path, which at the time was music education with the goal of becoming a high school music teacher.

‘Gap Years’ Can Be Smart Move for High School Seniors [SmartMoney]
Photo credit: malias

Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published July 20, 2007. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar tinyhands

I believe this depends on the individual, but at 18, how many people are prepared and mature enough to make this decision? I know I wasn’t, so I went away to college and struggled (read: partied). A year off working some crappy job might have encouraged me to work harder to ensure I didn’t end back up at The Gap.

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avatar Tim

i agree, it will depend on the person; however, missing from your calculations is the fact that if a person is focused on college after the gap year, the person will probably graduate on time with those who went to college immediately after high school. graduation from college now averages 5 years. if you are focused after the gap year, you probably can graduate in 4 years, graduating right on time with your peers.

i did a mini gap and was better for it.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,550 (Platinum)

Tim: I didn’t include that. While it certainly is more common than in the past for students to take 5 years to graduate, it is definitely not the “average.”

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avatar Robin

*So* worth it, in my opinion. There’s so much you can learn about yourself during that time, plus I think few realize it’s almost impossible to ever get a block of uncommitted time like that again unless you become unemployed. I have labored for years under the mistaken impression that hard work somehow earns free time. It’s just wrong. It’s the opposite, if anything.

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avatar Brad

Also not considered here is the propensity for people to say “I’ll go to college later” and never end up doing it. This happens far more often than people like to think. Having a gap year, at least here in the US, would lead to fewer high school graduates ever starting college, much less finishing.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,550 (Platinum)

Brad: I figured that would be a possibility for many, hence my “if they come back [to institutionalized education]” above.

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avatar Gray

Depends on the person and their family/upbringing, totally. That being said, I agree that it is indeed a good idea for some folks to take time off between high school and college. I didn’t take a break and it was 100% the right choice, however I can definitely think of friends that could have had a much smoother experience is they chilled out before heading right into a university.

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avatar Tim

Flexo,
I think you will find that even conservative estimates put 4-year college graduation rates in the low 40%, while 5-year graduation rates are above 50%. This to me suggests that the average is 5-years. considering public schools make up the vast majority of college graduates, college graduation rates even within 5-years has dropped to low 40%. This suggests that my “average” 5 years is more likely between 5-6 years. I was being generous by listing 5 years as “average”.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,550 (Platinum)

Tim: What is your source for those figures? Graduation rates include drop-outs… a 40% 4-year graduation rate means that 60% drop out before graduation *or* take longer than 4 years… not really a true indicator of what I’m talking about.

Let’s put it this way. Take everyone who doesn’t graduate at all out of the statistic. Most of the remaining students graduate within 4 years. A large absolute number — but not the majority — graduate in 5. A few take more than 5. This might put the average above 4, but not by much.

Even if the number of students who graduate in 5 is the same number of students who graduate in 4 (ignoring those who take longer or shorter), the average would be 4.5.

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avatar Mark

At least two studies have shown that the average length of time for students to graduate from college is now more than six years. The reasons include switching majors and changing schools, both more likely to happen when students are unsure of what they’re doing in school or how their studies fit into their overall career plan. This is according to The Gap Year Advantage by Rae Nelson and Karl Haigler.

Gap year is proved more efficient for students losing motivation after high school or with lower marks in school…

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avatar Foobarista

It’s definitely worth it, as long as it doesn’t need to be paid for with debt or the Bank of Mom & Dad. Another option is a “gap year” between community college and university after finishing the sophomore year – or even a break after working for awhile.

I took my “gap year” when I was 30, and lived in Beijing for several months. Things were a bit more complicated then – although simpler financially since I had more money and skills than the average student backpacker – but it led to marriage and a view of the world I’d never had gotten if I’d stayed planted at home.

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avatar Steve

In general it is best to get your degrees as young as you can so that you can have more working years at a higher salary level.

That said, instead of a gap year, I think it would be better to do at least one year of college before taking time off. That first term at college boosts your reading, math, and thinking skills so much. My college required a course on logic during freshman year, and it was a great tool to have. This advice only holds if you are not one of those fortunate prep school kids who find college boring because your prep school education was so good–there was a recent NY Times article on that topic.

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avatar zen

The problem with generalizations is that they make assumptions.

Just because you don’t graduate college doesn’t mean you delay starting a career – I have no degree but work for a fortune 500 company making more than some who graduated with degrees. I took a year off – a couple of times – and landed a job based on my experience and selling my skill set.

In addition – my time off was used to work at a factory job to pay off debts and save up cash for college – going early to college may mean an earlier career but you also sacrifice the freedom of not being tied down to the possibility of huge fees/loans and the indecision of choosing the right major or career.

It’s a delicate balance – taking time off can be beneficial and save you money, at the risk of the loss of time in college – but ultimately it’s a person-by-person basis. It’s definitely something parents should discuss with their college bound children to determine what is ultimately best for them.

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avatar Margo

I think the gap year would help keep a lot of the less-motivated kids out of college. All the posts above want them to start ASAP so they finish and start earning a salary – but think how many 18 year olds go spend 18 months in college and decide to quit, but retain the debt; or, spend 3 years on a philosophy or poli sci major before realizing it’s hard to find a well-paid career with those degrees.

I believe all college majors have value, but realisticially you can’t afford to debt-finance private school tuition for almost anything in the humanities or fine arts.

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avatar Tim

flexo,
the average is 5 years. multiple sources, but you can go to US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics if you want.

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avatar plonkee

Being in the UK, when I went to University there were lots of people who had taken gap years. They seemed much more grown up than those of us who had come straight from school.

All of them had done something in their year that could be turned into a credible addition to a cv – for most it was simply travelling to India, SE Asia and/or Australia.

I don’t know of anyone amongst my peers who took a gap year and never went to University. I do know people who took gap years after University and never got a ‘proper’ job – but they do have lifestyles that make them happy.

I don’t think the expense of taking a gap year is comparable to the expense of having children, or choosing a non-lucrative major. And like both those lifestyle choices, it can be good value for money, depending on the individual concerned.

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avatar Matt

Personally I went to college right after high school and promptly failed out. I wasn’t ready for the experience. I left school and went to work a few years later I went back and completed my degree. After this experience I am convinced that had I taken a year off I would have been far better prepared for continuing school.

I agree that its an individual choice but if you go straight to from high school to college you don’t get the additional perspective of seeing the world.

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avatar JB

What about a gap year that includes college credit? There are some programs like language immersions that earn credit as well. Are there other programs for gap year that offer college credit? I didn’t see a mention of that option.

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avatar Austin

Hey, I’m a student trying to decide whether or not to take a year off. If I did I would take it to do a through hike of the appalachian trail. My parents fear that I will not want to go to college, but I think that it would be a great time of self-discovery

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avatar Renee'

i’m currently half way through my gap year. i’m happy to say that i deff dn’t want

to spend the rest of my life like this meaning i want a career and a college

degree. i do see things differently and im still planning on attending next fall. in

the past few months ive learned things about myself and what i really want to

study. i do not recommend it to someone who has no intent on or

motivation to continue to further there education (school wise) and actually

learn stuff. People are in college by their own WILL (most of the time).

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avatar Dave Hamilton Hamilton

Renee’,

Good luck with that…………I can tell by your attention to detail and firm grasp of written communication that you will probable learn tons of stuff………..avoid journalism………..

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avatar Amanda

Also not considered here is the propensity for people to say “I’ll go to college later” and never end up doing it. This happens far more often than people like to think. Having a gap year, at least here in the US, would lead to fewer high school graduates ever starting college, much less finishing.

Or maybe they just found that college wasn’t for them. The only reason that so many go to college is because it’s marketed that we should.

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avatar Amanda

Sorry forgot to add. People don’t realize the reason that college is so encouraged is because it’s an industry.

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avatar Sam

I think that the student should continue with their education and not take a gap year, because the majority of student will never go back if they do take a gap year.

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avatar Nata

In all reality the gap year is a waste of time. I mean, I had fun in my gap year, but in all reality all I did was play and enjoy not having to do school. No body I think really learns anything. I mean what do you do and learn in a gap year? Bounce from job to job, which only builds a poor job record that can;t hold a solid job down, while working at one crappy job for a long time looks better on a resumes for potential careers. And then starting college quickly with your first year just knocking out the basics like science, english, math, etc, you have not only have job experience but a year under your belt to add to your degree. Time spent wisely, while this ‘gap’ year is a year wasted. I least it was for me

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