The Gap Year: Luxury or Education?

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

The gap year is once again making headlines, this time thanks to Malia Obama announcing her plans to take a year off before entering her freshman year at Harvard University. While the practice of taking a year off in between graduating high school and entering university has been a common practice in many European countries for decades, it has only recently started to become more popular in the United States. As the industry of private companies hosting gap years grows in the United States, the questions arise: is the gap year beneficial? And are all gap years created equal?

I first heard of the gap year when I was in elementary school, and my English god-sister took a year off in between finishing high school and beginning university to tour Europe with some friends. She worked for months to save up for the trip, and planned meticulously to travel as far and as cheaply as possible. For her and her friends, the gap year was commonplace. According to a study by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education, 11% of students entering British universities in 2010 were 19 years old, showing that they had deferred for a year—presumably taking a gap year, and the number is assumed to be much lower in the United States.

The concept of the gap year is so new in the US that until recently, little research had been done on its potential benefits or detriments. With the popularity of the gap year growing, however, there is new incentive for private companies seeking a profit to turn out data supporting it. A quick Google search yields many companies offering opportunities to travel the globe or volunteer in developing countries, all for a high price. Critics of the gap year say it’s a luxury belonging only to children of wealthy parents to take a year of indulgence. And according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, students who wait to attend college are at a much higher risk of never completing a postsecondary degree, especially if they are a racial minority or come from a lower socio-economic background.

Proponents of the gap year, while not necessarily having years of data and studies on their side, point out other potential benefits of a delayed university start date. One argument in support states that it gives students a break from academic life to pursue other interests, whether that be traveling, volunteering, or pursuing professional experience. They claim those students then enter university with a better understanding of the world, themselves, and what they want to study and do with their degree. Other supporters claim, especially when the gap year involves an international component, that the students develop more cultural awareness and awareness of their own privilege as Americans. This way of thinking is growing in popularity, and schools like Harvard are encouraging their incoming freshmen classes to take a gap year—just like Malia Obama.

I did not take a gap year, and didn’t even consider taking one. Not only was I eager to head off to college, but my parents could not afford to send me travelling on their dime, and I wasn’t interested in working behind a desk in lieu of attending university. Also, in my case, I knew my college career would involve a semester abroad, so a year travelling before college didn’t seem as necessary for the development of my cultural awareness. I do see the benefit of the gap year, however, provided that it is spent as an educational or professional supplement, not a year of luxury and partying. As more and more American universities begin to support the gap year, more funding and financial support is being offered to allow students of all backgrounds to defer for a year. The gap year could end up revolutionizing the way we see higher education in this country—and what do we Americans like more than a revolution?