young girl graduating high school

College or a year off?

Instead of packing their bags and getting ready for their freshman year of college, some high school graduates are planning different types of experiences. They’re volunteering in New Orleans, teaching on a Native American reservation, counseling teens on alcohol and drug prevention, or working on a construction project in Ghana, as they gather experiences to broaden their horizons and help them figure out what they want to do with their lives.

The options for life after high school are changing. The shifting economic picture and the rising costs of higher education are compounding the pressure on graduating teens and their parents. Despite the traditional custom of going straight to college, some teens may benefit from taking time off for a gap year. For those who need a break from the academic pressure, or who are not sure why they’re going to college or what they'll do when they get there, taking a year off between high school and college can provide a rich growth experience.

The first step – developing a money plan 

The current economic downturn has affected the ability of some families to pay the constantly rising costs of college tuition, not to mention the additional costs of a gap year. So in planning for the gap year, in addition to deciding how the time will be spent, families must consider how the time will be paid for. The plan may include a job after graduation to contribute to expenses such as rent, food, clothing and entertainment. In addition, the gap year allows the family more time to consider their teen’s college options in the new economic climate. Starting college too soon can be costly. According to the College Board, nearly 30 percent of all students who enter college don't return for their sophomore year, thereby forfeiting the first year’s tuition.

What are the benefits of taking a year off?

Taking a year off allows students to:

  • reflect on what college would be best suited to their financial situation as well as their needs and preferences
  • clarify their interests; become aware of their strengths and weaknesses
  • take advantage of the practical learning that goes on outside the classroom
  • apply skills in real life situations (i.e., tutoring students in an understaffed area or a foreign country, traveling, working on an environmental project)
  • experience life in communities different from those in which they have been living
  • explore choices and opportunities beyond the traditional classroom
  • learn about a variety of careers before making a critical decision
  • enter college with a reinvigorated sense of intellectual curiosity
  • gain maturity, initiative and resourcefulness, all of which make the adjustment to college life smoother
  • have a chance to reapply to schools from which they were initially turned down
  • spend some time working in a career field that is of interest

What are the options?

Students can follow different paths. College applications or entry can be postponed for a year. The year can be planned with varying degrees of structure. Some students may benefit from simply taking a year off to catch their breath, take part-time courses and work part time.  Students looking for a challenging and novel experience may choose from a number of programs (for-profit or non-profit). Some offer the opportunity to work, travel, learn a new language, study in foreign countries, volunteer in a political campaign, work in disadvantaged areas, help children with special educational needs, or assist in health care facilities. Some programs are of short duration, such as a few weeks; others require longer commitments. Not everyone can afford to travel or take part in activities in other states or foreign countries. Some options are service in the military or other national service programs.

Some students have made choices based on their interests. (1)

Jong Kim, eager to pursue his interests in music before entering a science-based college, spent most of his year off teaching violin to children in an overcrowded, understaffed school that had cut back on its music and arts program. This experience gave him a better understanding of options for integrating music into other aspects of his life.

Myna found several promising gap-year jobs. Her top choice was a 12-week stint at Frontier Nursing Service in the hills of Kentucky, where volunteers can spend two days a week helping with office work and three days accompanying doctors or midwives on their rounds in Appalachia.

The idea of a gap year makes a lot of parents anxious. What do they worry about?

I worry that the cost of the year off will use up the money he needs for tuition.
The financial investment in the year off varies. Some programs require tuition, others may pay a stipend, thus adding to the money available for tuition. Living arrangements also vary. They are provided by some programs; in others the students pay.

I worry that my son won’t go back to school after a year off.
Many students complete their year off having gained a more specific idea of what career path they want to pursue. Those students who participate in a planned program are more likely to continue in college than those who do not make plans. Some students may not in fact choose to go to college, which may be an appropriate decision for them.

I worry that my daughter will find it hard to go back to studying and sticking to a curriculum.
Study skills are not lost in one year. In fact, lack of focus or burnout can be more problematic for students who don't take a year off. Many students who do take the time off enter college with an improved ability to focus and a renewed desire to learn. Taking a gap year can actually make kids more focused and ready for the rigors of academic life.

I worry that this is just a way of avoiding 'real life.'
Many students find the time-off experience rewarding and enter their college studies with a more mature and self-directed appreciation of 'real life.' A gap year does not mean that a student will never earn a degree. While there are no formal studies on the number of students who never end up making their way to college post-gap, anecdotal evidence from admissions officers across the country says there are very few who actually don’t return.

I worry that going abroad isn’t safe for young people on their own. They could wind up in prison in a third-world country or get hurt in an accident.
The vast majority of those who delay college to work or study in foreign countries come back safe and sound.


A number of leaders in education are challenging the notion that the traditional educational progression - preschool to elementary school to middle school to high school to college - is the only route to success. Many college admissions personnel feel that postponing college entry for one year can offer a worthwhile break in the academic pressure of the preceding 12 years and an opportunity for students to experience different environments and explore different interests. Princeton, for example, offers a "bridge year" program that allows newly admitted students to spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning their freshman year.

The value of taking time off to experience and gain from other ways of learning is highlighted in the remarks of Harvard's Dean of Admissions. "Most students would be better off if they were able to get some perspective on themselves, their lives, what they hope to accomplish. The testimony from people who have done this [taken a year off] is extraordinary. It permeates the entire way they think about using university." (2)

Ideally, parents and their children should research, explore and agree on the path to take, so that everyone feels excited and committed to the decision.

References and Related Books

1. The vignettes of  Jong Kim and Myna were furnished by Gail Reardon, Taking Off, 12 Marlborough St., Boston, MA 02116
2. Quoted in the New York Times: April 17, 2001

Sources for Further Information:

(Web sites when address not listed)

American Field Service
AmeriCorps – funding recently expanded
British American Educational Foundation
Center for Interim Programs
Cambridge, MA; Princeton, NJ
City Year
Boston, MA
Globe Quest
Habitat for Humanity
Outward Bound
National Outdoor Leadership School
Taking Off
Gail Reardon, 12 Marlborough St., Boston, MA 02116
Time Out Associates
POBox 503, Milton, MA 02186
Interpoints Inc. Washington Depot, Conn.
Crossroads, Bedford, MA, (781) 280-3774

Date Updated: May 26, 2009