Why Gap Years Aren’t Just for People Headed to Four-Year Universities

August 28, 2018
Elena M. SanchezGap Years

Though gap years have gained traction in the US in recent years, they are often still perceived as something exclusively reserved for students enrolling in a four-year university.

Here is some good news if you have different plans after high school but are still interested in a gap year: they’re not.

The fact is, not all students are planning on attending a four-year university immediately after high school. Some students are not sure a typical university setting is for them. Some students may have personal or family circumstances that require them to stay close to home. Still other students simply don’t want to put themselves and their families in a position with so much future debt. And this is okay! There is still the potential to end up in a career someone is passionate about without the typical four-year university experience first. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 2 in 3 recent high school graduates enrolled in college attended 4-year universities last year. This leaves a third of students enrolled in an institution like a community college, and doesn’t even account for students who pursue specialized trades or take part in a work placement. For these students, the idea of participating in a gap year may not have ever crossed their mind, but it is possible and there are strong reasons a gap year would benefit them just as much as anyone else.

Reason 1: There is no hard and fast rule saying you have to be enrolled in a four-year university to participate in a gap year

The first reason that people with different plans after high school can also participate in a gap year is the simplest one: there’s no rule saying they can’t.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread perception that gap years are only for students going to prestigious four-year universities and this image is understandable. If gap years are talked about at all, it’s usually in the context of an ivy league encouraging their incoming class to take one, a rich or famous person taking one, or in reference to a gap year program that costs more than the tuition of a private university itself. If this is the general image of gap years, of course, they’re going to seem like a luxury out of reach to someone with different plans after high school.

Gap year programs don’t usually require students to be enrolled in a four-year university before a student applies. Many gap year programs open their applications during a student’s senior year of high school and the major requirement is that the student obtains their diploma by the time the program begins. If a program truly cares about the development of students from a variety of backgrounds, they will be open to applications from students with different educational paths, including less conventional ones. If you’re looking for a program yourself, keep an eye out for ones that a) actually have an application process and not just a price tag and b) mention financial assistance being available from the get go. If a program simply has a price tag with no application process whatsoever, they’re probably trying to sell a product and not putting much thought into the individuals they are bringing together as a team.

Reason 2: More time to determine what educational and career path you want while still learning

This reason stands strong if a student has plans to go to a four-year university or not. However, instead of a gap year simply helping a student decide on their major, a gap year could help someone with different plans to examine all of the options available to them- conventional or not. If a student is uncertain about what type of college they want to go to, if they would prefer a trade school, or even start working while studying, a gap year could be a perfect way to have more time to figure this out. Also, they would be learning marketable skills and gaining real world experience at the same time.

It is important to emphasize that a gap year isn’t a “year off” and, as with most things, it’s how you use your time that will matter in the long run and not just the amount of time you take. Working at the ice cream stand down the street for a year, while delicious, isn’t going to kickstart your career if you’re thinking of becoming a programmer. Similarly, neither is an overpriced year traveling with a cushy tour group with one volunteer painting project thrown in. A gap year should act as an incubator for your development and challenge you the right amount. Keep an eye out for things that are going to allow you to explore your interests while also teaching you practical skills and giving you invaluable networking opportunities.

Reason 3: Potentially save money and time in the long-term

When people first hear about taking a gap year, they may think that it will set them back a year and cost a lot of money. I would argue, however, that a year wisely invested after graduation has the potential to save both money and time in the long run. Some gap year programs do cost a lot of money. But, as mentioned earlier, they don’t have to and there are ones that are more reasonably priced and offer financial assistance. It’s these ones that are probably going to pay off the most in the long term.

As far as being a “year behind” is concerned, if I’m not certain where or what I want to pursue, I would much rather have a year to fine tune my interests and gain real-world experience before committing to something than spending years studying and working in a career before realizing that it wasn’t for me. A few years ago, there were a flurry of articles circulating about how only 27% of college graduates had a job related to their major, spurred by a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. While the exact figures have to be taken with a grain of salt, a lot of college graduates will tell you that it’s pretty common to hear about peers who don’t end up in jobs related to the exact discipline they studied for four years.

A worse thing than a student realizing they’ve studied something they don’t want to pursue is a student dropping out of a university after investing all of that time and money because they perhaps weren’t ready or it wasn’t a good match for them all along. Late last year, a Forbes stated less than half of students get a degree from the first institution they began studying at in an article titled ‘College Completion Rates are Still Disappointing’. When this happens, students take on large amounts of debt (with interest rates to go with them) and ultimately have no diploma to show for it. If you’ve already taken the time to learn what you want during a gap year, you can move on to your next step purposefully and without hesitation about a huge investment going to waste.

If you don’t have plans to attend a four-year university, but are thinking about a gap year don’t dismiss the idea just because you don’t hear your peers talking about one or read any articles about people in your situation. A gap year program that is truly seeking to help all sorts of students be better prepared for their future would be lucky to have someone in their next class with a less conventional, more interesting trajectory.

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Elena M. Sanchez

Contributing Writing

Elena M. Sanchez is from North Carolina but has been living and working abroad for the past five years. She has lived in South Korea, Spain, and is currently based in Glasgow, Scotland.  She's passionate about education, the outdoors, and loves when the two overlap. Her free time is spent hiking, keeping her Spanish sharp, and making art.

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