Taking Gap Year Education To The Next Level

09/01/2014  |  Ethan Knight

Gap years are on the forefront of many peoples’ minds these days: universities are incorporating them into their programming, students and parents are increasingly asking about them, educational counselors/consultants are increasingly getting asked about them, and organizations like the American Gap Association now exist to help navigate them. But delving into the world of gap years is accompanied by a variety of both exciting and challenging questions, perhaps the most exciting being the outcomes. When challenged more deeply these outcomes seem a natural outflow of taking the intentional time to align one’s personal interests with the world of opportunities that are out there. But, put in more general terms, taking the time to figure out what you stand for and what you stand against inevitably translates to a more motivated student — and thankfully there’s data to support this.

“I don’t do gap years — they’re for students who are _________.” While this is rarely something that one hears out loud, it’s often a sentiment shared among the college-counseling world. Many still think that going directly on to college is the best order of operations for every student. Certainly, college graduates will earn almost $800,000 more over the course of their lifetimes according to recent statistics. But it’s in the development of a student’s soft skills and the way those benefits impact academic motivation and performance, and perhaps most importantly, the employment benefits such soft skills create that truly make this an option worth exploring.

At this point it’s probably worth defining what a gap year is because it’s how they come to develop those soft skills that’s most compelling.

  1. Appropriate Mentorship (Experiential Education). Students learn best at this age when they’re with someone who can call them out, identify key learning opportunities and reflect. Gap year organizations have typical staff:/student ratios of 8:1, with the average age of the staff being in their late 20’s to early 30’s. For independent service placements, the students have a mentor that they will usually see weekly using Skype. While mentorship is the main goal, this is also a safety mechanism to check in about any possible physical or mental health issues.
  2. Self-Governance (Experiential Education). Students need to have skin in the game — without this, too often students blame everyone around them for an “unsuccessful outcome” which is made all the easier when they’re not actually responsible for any of those outcomes. It’s for this reason that most gap year students are encouraged to work at least in part and thus help offset the expenses of their program. Assigning different leadership roles that are prepped, debriefed, and transitioned each week often does this. Some examples might be Leader of the Week, Hot Wheels (in charge of transportation), or El Maestro (in charge of directing English conversation towards practice of Spanish).
  3. Reflection (Experiential Education). As we all know, an experience alone is great, but it’s not learned unless there’s an opportunity to process it. In gap years, how this is done varies wildly, but it’s often a discussion, a journal prompt, a video, a project, or even a paper.
  4. Learning to See Things From Another Perspective. In the world of “Citizenship” that we’re all trying to inculcate, being able to empathize or see it through the other’s eyes is critical for understanding and resolution. I think Congress needs a gap year ... for this reason alone — Lord knows they’d return more productive. Often this is done through some form of experientially based curricula or by an intentional service-learning experience that requires high contact with the local population.
  5. Challenging of Comfort Zones. Learning happens best when it’s real and we’re not asleep. In this way, gap years often keep a student “on their toes” as a matter of program design and not just to keep them out of trouble. Without good mentorship this will never happen, but largely this is done through the engineering of a program that pushes comfort zones. Often this would mean putting students in a VERY remote location on a project, then bringing them back into civilization to process — understanding that we learn best by exercising our brains as if they’re muscles through expanding then contracting, then reflecting.

How do you know if a gap year is right for your student?

The two most common reasons students takes a gap year are:

  1. Burnout from the competitive pressure of high school
  2. A desire “to find out more about themselves.”

A common profile for a gap year student is that of a high-achieving student, or perhaps one who got great ACT scores but not great grades. Gap year students are also more commonly reevaluating the value of college and simply don’t want to waste a year or two of postsecondary tuition to “figure it out.” That said, gap years are certainly no panacea — they cannot “fix”a therapeutic kid and they most certainly are not going to miraculously transform a lackluster student into a straight-A student. They work because of the mentors, program structures, and intentional radical juxtapositions that help to expedite the process.

There are a lot of hurdles that regularly challenge gap years: “What if my son/daughter doesn’t go back to college?” or “Is it safe to go to _______?” or “Won’t they lose all their scholarship dollars?” or “Why not just take a more traditional junior year abroad?” or perhaps the most common, “Isn’t it just for the wealthy?” While everyone can benefit from a Gap Year, it’s not necessarily right for everyone, which is probably why the most critical principle in the process is to let the student lead the way.

The good news is that none of these fears should be limitations: 90 percent of gap year students are back in college within a year; most universities base need-based aid on FAFSA which needs to be completed each year, but scholarships are, in many cases, held over on deferral; hour-for-hour of “program time” a student is actually safer in the field than at home; the developmental maturation that happens pre-college allows students opportunities to maximize a full four years of higher education that delaying until the junior year misses; and finally, American Gap Association organizations are giving away almost $3 million in needs-based scholarships —if a student asks.

The gap year world is growing — roughly 27 percent each year in real enrollments representing nearly 40,000 students each year. Universities have started to create their own gap year programming most commonly using third party provider organizations such as Global Citizen Year, Thinking Beyond Borders, Global Routes, or Omprakash to facilitate their tailored goals. For universities these are proving good recruitment tools that bring in a more motivated student population.

The world of gap year programs is an evolving one — currently struggling to combat stubborn questions, to increase the funding so it can be available to more students, and to source more data as an industry in search of how to improve. They have been around for almost 35 years during which they’ve largely been run as more of an art than a science. Borrowing from Outward Bound and NOLS the incredible caliber of Risk Management tools, they’ve proven to have a fantastic safety record. These next few years will bring an exciting growth in Gap Years with more data, more testimonials and more universities joining the ranks.

Ethan Knight has been working within the world of Gap Years since 1996 when he took his own gap year to India, Nepal and Tibet. He currently leads the non-profit American Gap Association that is dedicated to Standards, the meaningful certification of gap year programs, fund-raising for scholarships, research, and of course growing the number of gap year participants.
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