The Great New Gap Year

Posted January 31, 2013

A decade ago, the idea of a gap year seemed like an option only suited students who wanted to shirk responsibility for as long as possible. But the year off between high school and college that’s so popular in the U.K. and Australia has been gaining traction in the U.S. for a few years now. Though no formal statistics are taken on gap years in the U.S. (yet), the Higher Education Research Institute estimates that in 2011, 1.2% of first-time college freshmen in the U.S. deferred their education to take a gap year — and that’s only counting the ones who applied and were accepted into college before taking a year off. The gap year of today, though, is taking a different shape than what the phrase typically brings to mind.

The traditional gap year lasted, well, a year and was normally taken after graduating high school but before beginning college. Many students would take the opportunity to gain work experience or to backpack through Europe on $5 a day. Today’s growing gap year craze is often far from the traditional tales of roughing it alone or flying by the seat of your pants. A gap year can last anywhere from a few months to two years and is sometimes taken during college or after graduation, before beginning a job. Productive gap years require careful planning, according to experts, and don’t necessarily come cheap.

Julia Levine Rogers knows the ins and outs of gap years better than most. After graduating from Hamilton College in 2006, Rogers spent nine months in Tanzania educating children and the community on HIV/AIDS prevention and women’s reproductive health. For her, long-term volunteering was the perfect way to challenge herself after a comfortable college career and before heading out into the business world. Her experience was so transformative, though, she started a gap year advising company in 2008, EnRoute Consulting in Vermont. Not only are more students jumping on board as they avoid education burnout and seek global experiences, but organizations are seeing the potential, as well.

The Business of the Gap Year

Gap years have created their own industry as they’ve grown in popularity, with companies springing up to provide volunteer experiences abroad, organize travel between points of interest, and advise on everything from gap year job placement to insurance to safety precautions. Businesses like have seen their American web traffic grow from almost none to about 10% of their total web traffic.

"There has been a strong teen travel industry for a while — summer programs — and those companies are quickly expanding into the gap year market. U.K.-based gap programs are starting to look to the States for participants," Rogers says. "I’ve been told America is seen as the ‘sleeping gap year giant’ by Europe."

More than 30 gap year fairs take place across the U.S. every year. Even some top schools are getting in on the gap year game; Princeton’s Bridge Year Program lets select students put off starting their freshman year to do school-sponsored service for nine months at an international location. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides a Global Gap Year Fellowship for seven incoming freshmen to take a gap year.

Gap years don’t necessarily mean students have to go overseas. Many find projects and work experience in the U.S. are just as beneficial and more affordable than trips abroad. Americorps is a popular federally funded option; it provides several types of volunteer opportunities, including tutoring, construction, and helping the environment, to adults of all ages. Outward Bound runs courses in wilderness skills in states across the country. Dynamy’s Internship Year provides the opportunity for community service and internships for 40 students. Those students who choose to go abroad also have a wide variety of options on almost every continent. Bel Camino takes students to Italy, ISA lets students go to South America, China, or Europe, and GVI has programs in Africa, Asia, Central America, and beyond — and those are just three of the dozens of program options. Many religious gap year programs have popped up,as well, allowing young people to get a glimpse of long-term missions work. Some of these include BMS World Mission, Christian Camp Leaders, and Impact 360. These companies may take away some of the guesswork and total independence that used to be associated with a year off from school, but they help make the planning easier, an important part of a worthwhile gap year.

"Being deliberate and thoughtful is essential to a successful gap year. I always recommend that gap year students set a few goals for their gap year and use that as a guide in the planning," Rogers says. "Researching programs and opportunities is also an important aspect of planning. Many gap years have been ruined by choosing bad organizations to travel with!"

Careful planning can also help students avoid a potential pitfall of gap years: harming the developing nations that many students set out to help. The thinktank Demos reported in 2011 that poorly planned volunteering stints in developing countries can start to act as a sort of "new colonialism." According to the report, one in five British people who took a gap year said they didn’t feel their presence had a positive impact on the native people, and these programs could start to appear like a new way for the West to assert their power if not carefully planned and executed.

Arranging plans through a program or consultant also helps parents sleep a little better at night, especially since many of their children are only 17 or 18 when going on these adventures.

"It can be hard for parents since instead of dropping them off at school — which is hard as it is — they are putting them on an airplane," Rogers explains.

The added security that comes with well-established programs and using consultants can add up quickly on a family’s finances, though, particularly for years abroad. The 10-month Global Citizen Year program, for example, comes with a price tag of $29,500. Projects Abroad’s Global Gap program, which lasts 27 weeks and takes participants to five countries on three continents, is $29,995. Thinking Beyond Borders’ two-semester program usually costs more than $34,000.

Footing the Bill

Rogers says her clients’ gap year adventures usually cost $15,000 to $20,000 on average, which parents often help pay for (though she points out that gap year students on a budget probably aren’t using an advisor or similar services; they may have a cheaper experience closer to the traditional gap year, outside the growing gap year industry). In the U.K., parents spend 995 million pounds, or more than $1.5 billion, each year on their children’s gap years.

The positive news for students is that many gap year programs provide the opportunity for financial aid. Out of all the participants of Global Citizen Year, 80% receive some sort of financial aid and more than a third have the whole cost covered. Thinking Beyond Borders also provides need-based financial aid, as well as suggestions for raising the money for tuition. Students should check with individual programs to see if aid is available.

So what do gap year students get with all that money? Once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Whether their motivation for going is to take a break from school, push themselves beyond their comfort zone, or figure out what they want to do with their lives, the people taking part in these programs are doing it big. Projects Abroad’s Global Gap involves service projects ranging from teaching to marine conservation to human rights in Ghana, South Africa, Peru, India, and Thailand, all taking place between September and April. Rogers said most of her clients choose to do a few different things, in different places during their year off — interning with Amnesty International in San Francisco before heading to work with a soccer foundation in Madrid, or starting in Italy and ending up in Ecuador, for example. The more variety, the better for these gappers.

"Last year I had a student who spent the fall on an expensive group-adventure travel program in South America, then went to Fiji for two weeks," Rogers says. "Then two weeks trekking and whitewater rafting in Bhutan with her father, then spent the spring backpacking Southeast Asia and New Zealand with her boyfriend, volunteering along the way."

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