The Gap Year: Just a Trend or a Great Idea for Millennials?

The rising cost of tuition and an uncertain future is stopping high school seniors from going directly to college.

Many students are taking time to travel, volunteer, and think about their future before rushing to college. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Like many millennials, Jakob Hooks graduated high school in May, and made a decision he felt was perfect for him.

He decided to take a gap year.

“I took a gap year because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to school for and needed more time to figure it out,” Hooks told TakePart. “It seemed like I might be able to make a clearer decision if I wasn’t under the pressure of having to decide during my senior year and instead took as much time as I needed.”

A guitarist in a Little Rock band, Hooks moved out from his parents’ home, continued working in a restaurant, and now may study audio engineering.

Hooks isn’t alone. There’s an emerging trend of high school seniors taking a year off before attending college and pondering their options. Some volunteer for nonprofits like City Year. Others travel the globe, experiencing various cultures. One of the main reasons for the gap year trend is millennials do not want to go into debt for a college education straight out of high school.

In Denmark and most of Europe, a gap year is normative, and their students are a lot more mature than our students.

“I wish most American kids would take a gap year,” Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, research professor at Clark University’s Department of Psychology, told TakePart. “In Denmark and most of Europe, a gap year is normative, and their students are a lot more mature than our students.”

Arnett, the poll director of the 2013 Clark University Poll of Parents of Emerging Adults, said that many American students waste their first year at college.

“They don’t know why they are there,” he said. “They do binge drinking. They do worse in that first year and they are more likely to drop out in their first year. I think a lot of that is immaturity and they aren’t ready.”

According to the University of Rochester admissions department, more students are taking “gap semesters.” Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions, said that “kids want six months off to travel and combat the burnout that is college access and senior year stress. They end up starting with us in January.”

USA Gap Year Fairs is a “national circuit of events that bring together reputable Gap Year organizations, interested students and parents, high school college counselors and the Gap Year experts.” It, too, is seeing an increase in interested students. According to its website, USA Gap Year Fairs has grown from seven to 30 events nationally just in the last five years.

Last year, the University of Denver also saw more students wanting to embark on a gap year, according to Todd Rinehart, the university’s associate vice chancellor and director of admissions.

Shalondra Martin, 22, graduated in the top 20 percent of her high school class in Little Rock in 2009. But instead of heading to college, she joined City Year. For one academic year, she tutored first-graders at an elementary school in the mornings.

“I was so proud, it was like they became my little kids for a while,” she said. “This was a remarkable feeling. Not only did their reading levels increase, but so did their confidence.”

Martin spent afternoons planning monthly community service projects for corps members such as painting murals, building benches, and transforming a community garden. She then attended a local community college before receiving a scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She plans on becoming a professional choreographer.

For Hooks, he plans to study audio engineering independently during his gap year so he can be a step ahead once he enters the classroom.

“Now I know I want to go learn audio engineering,” he said. “In the next year, I want to learn as much as I can on my own about the field I plan on studying. I’d say this has been good for me so far because I am not stuck going to college right out of high school simply because I don’t know what else to do.”