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Should Your High School Senior Take a Gap Year?

For some students, time off before college is beneficial

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

“Mom, Dad, I don’t want to go to college next year.” These are words that would no doubt send a shot of fear through most parents of high school seniors.
Whether they managed to get a degree themselves or not, few adults today doubt that in the economy of the future, having a college education will be more important than ever for success. Many middle-class parents begin cultivating their kids’ college expectations in the freshman and sophomore years of high school these days, so their kids will not only go to college, but aim for as prestigious a college as possible.

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However, immediate panic is not in order if your emerging adult declares the need for an educational pause after high school. Yes, getting a college education or some other form of training after high school is essential to young people’s future. However, it is not necessary to go directly from high school to college in order to obtain the benefits of higher education. In fact, for some young people, taking a “gap year” or two after high school may be the key to succeeding in college.
Time to Mature
The statistics on college success — and failure — are grim. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 58 percent of young Americans who enter a four-year college have graduated six years later. That’s a sobering statistic, and it should make all of us wonder what is going wrong and what we can do to improve the system.
For many students, it simply comes down to money. They end their pursuit of a college degree simply because their funds are exhausted.

For others, however, their immaturity has proved to be the biggest obstacle.

College requires resources of self-discipline that high school does not. No one is there to tell you to get out of bed and go to class and no one monitors whether you have done your homework — except your professor, who will be far less indulgent than your high school teachers if you haven't.

Then there is the drinking culture of college. Alcohol use peaks at ages 20 to 22, and college students drink more than their peers who do not attend college, according to many national surveys. Getting drunk on a frequent basis means that classes get skipped, homework goes unfinished and tests get flunked. Dropping out is likely to follow.

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So what would happen if more of our emerging adults gave themselves a year or two to grow up and become more responsible before making the transition to college life?

In the United States, research evidence is scarce, because only about 2 percent of young Americans take a gap year. However, taking a gap year is far more common in the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel and northern Europe. Research in these countries suggests the potential benefits of making the gap year more common in the U.S.
Motivations of a “Gapper”
Andrew Jones, an education researcher at the University of London, summarized the results of research in the U.K., where taking a gap year has become increasingly common in recent decades. British emerging adults have a variety of motivations for taking a gap year, including:

  • Desire for a break from formal education
  • To gain a broader perspective on life
  • To develop personal skills
  • To earn money
  • To experience encountering other people, places, and cultures
  • To do some good in the world, either locally or abroad

U.K. “gappers” are similarly diverse in the range of their gap year experiences. Many simply find a job. Others seek work overseas, for example as an au pair, an English instructor or doing seasonal work. Some volunteer in service organizations, either in their community or internationally.
Taking a gap year has a variety of benefits, according to Jones’s review. Gappers have higher motivation when they resume their education afterward, compared to non-gappers. They report developing life skills, social values and non-academic skills during their gap year. They clarify their educational directions and career choices. Their educational performance is higher than non-gappers, and once they graduate, having a gap year enhances their employability and their career opportunities.
There are drawbacks, too, for some. Unless some kind of formal activity is planned, there is the risk of a wasted year. As one gapper in Jones’s report warned, “You’ve got to avoid the danger of lying in bed for a year doing nothing else than watching daytime TV.” But for most emerging adults in the U.K., taking a gap year turns out to be a rewarding choice.
Does It Really Work?
Would taking a gap year work as well in the U.S.? It’s hard to say, but with only 58 percent of entering college students ultimately succeeding, it seems to be worth trying something new. There are many high school seniors who may be ready for college the next year, but clearly there are many who are not. At least parents and their high school kids should be asking: Would a gap year be something that would make college success more likely?

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Some parents may fear that if their kids take a gap year or two, they’ll get used to making money and will never go to college. However, it is more likely that they’ll find that without some kind of education or training after high school, they would be doomed to low-wage jobs with no future. Experiencing the job market after high school is more likely to be a motivator for more education than a deterrent.
Although taking a gap year is less common in the U.S. than in other developed countries, interest is growing. Parents and their high school kids now have the opportunity to take advantage of “gap year fairs” which present a variety of options that can help allay fears that a gap year would be squandered. Many gap year programs displayed at the fairs are sponsored by volunteer service organizations, such as Youth International. This is a generation of young people who have a strong interest in doing service and in traveling abroad, and many gap year programs offer a chance to reach both goals. For more information, see
Like the decision of where to go to college, the decision to take a gap year should be researched carefully. Ultimately, it’s a family decision and has to be based on each family’s perceptions of what would be best for their child who is now on the threshold of an exciting but daunting new life stage.

We’re not advocating the gap year as the right step for everyone. However, we think it’s worth considering whether taking a gap year might be the best option in your case. It’s important for kids to get to the finish line of a college degree, but for some, their chances of getting there may be enhanced if they take a deep breath and a pause before entering the race.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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