Gap years are all the rage, and the rationales are many: Take a year off between high school and college to work, travel, learn a language or skill, or volunteer.
Gap years can be "excellent opportunities for students to mature, follow a passion, or scratch an itch they've got, and return a year later," said Houston Dougharty, vice president of student affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa.
But Dougharty says there are pitfalls: "I've also seen cases where a student has taken a gap year and not used the time effectively, and found it has not helped them either in terms of maturing or developing skills or being more ready for college."
Organized gap-year programs can also cost as much as a year of college. "Like other educational fashion trends out there, this one is being stoked by well-organized business interests masquerading as idealistic facilitators of a new movement," warned Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Here are some things students and parents should keep in mind when considering a gap year.
DISRUPTION TO COLLEGE PLANS: Many gap year students apply to college as high school seniors, then defer enrollment for a year. But not all end up back in college.
Because of that, Tulane University this year upped its nonrefundable deposit to hold a freshman spot for a year from $300 to $1,000. The university in New Orleans is also, for the first time, requiring gap-year students to fill out a separate application detailing their plans, including "what you hope to gain by deferring your admission."
"We've had students taking a gap year who didn't come back, so we really want to make sure they have a well thought-out plan and that they are fully committed to returning to college," said Jeffrey Schiffman, Tulane's senior associate director of admission. He says Tulane typically gets 15 to 25 gap year students in each incoming class of 1,650 freshmen and has "definitely" seen an increase in gap year requests in recent years.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, among students graduating high school in 2003, 44 percent who went straight to college got their bachelor's degree within six years. But among those who delayed college for a year after high school — whether to take a formal "gap year" or because of obstacles like finances or family issues — only about 15 percent had their bachelor's degree within six years.
Beatriz Zayas, a counselor at Southwest High School in El Centro, Calif., works with students who are "first-generation, low-income, and English language learners, and most of the time when our students take a gap year, it's for financial reasons — to work full time, to attend to health issues, or to take care of family."
Some students who start work may never resume their schooling. "It is too difficult to go into the working world and switch back into education," said Sallie McMullin, dean of admissions at Longwood University, a state school in Farmville, Va. She urges students who work during a gap year to "keep your foot in the door at school by taking a course at a community college, because once you start making money, it's hard to go backwards. If there's any income involved or too much relaxation with a lot of downtime, they can't get the study habits back again."
Some colleges do not grant deferrals for gap years. At Texas A&M, for example, "we will defer applications for one semester only usually due to medical reasons, (church) mission trips, military service etc.," said Scott McDonald, director of admissions. "Students who would want a one-year deferral would be directed to re-apply for admission."
Applying to college after you've been out of high school for a year can also be complicated, especially if you're traveling, because you have to coordinate transcripts, test scores, recommendations and other paperwork.
PLANNING, COSTS AND RE-ENTRY: Sally Rubenstone, who writes the "Ask the Dean" column for the popular CollegeConfidential.com site, says "poor planning is the biggest gap-year pitfall."
Her advice: "Map out a careful blueprint of the year to come. Be specific. For instance, while a paying job can be a good way to fill hours, to make money for college down the road, and to possibly learn new skills, what happens at the end of the work day, when the night is still young and there is no homework to do? And if travel is on the docket, is there a realistic budget in place?"
Gap-year programs — including some that are among the most highly recommended by school administrators — can be expensive. The National Outdoor Leadership School, which teaches outdoor skills through extended backcountry trips, charges $12,000 to $19,000 for a semester, depending on location. Carpe Diem Education, which offers service programs in developing countries, charges $8,900 to $11,900 depending on location, plus airfare, for a semester.
Shari Hindman took out a $10,000 loan to help her daughter pay for a $30,000 international program called LeapNow that included an internship at a birthing center in Indonesia. "This was a huge investment for us but it was really worth it," said Hindman, whose daughter will now enter a formal midwife-training program in North Carolina.
Gap years don't have to empty your bank account, though. Some students volunteer while living at home. Those who take part in AmeriCorps — the domestic Peace Corps — get a living allowance. Rebecca Hamm Conard, now a rising junior at Rice University in Houston, worked full-time for a few months during her gap year to pay for a trip around Europe for the rest of the year.
When she resumed her studies, Conard said she felt her year off had given her "a slight advantage compared to students who had come straight from high school" because she learned to manage her time: "When it came to things like doing laundry, regulating my sleep schedule, and being responsible for my own meals, those were things I'd been doing for a year."
School administrators say most students who start college after a year away have no problem picking up their coursework. Conard said she only needed a refresher in one area: "I have to admit, I retook calculus."
WHAT A GAP YEAR IS NOT: McMullin, the Longwood dean, says gap years are not a good way to improve your academic standing. "The gap year does not replace grades and test scores and other requirements of the institution," she emphasized. "For college admissions, the student still is presented with the same academic record and the same test scores."
Scott White says virtually all the gap year students he's dealt with as a counselor at Montclair High School in New Jersey have had "good results" and continued on to college. But he cautioned against parents signing up troubled kids for gap year programs, noting that two of eight students were sent home from a gap year trip his daughter took in Central America.
These types of "programs are not good options for kids with substance abuse issues that are not under control. As structured as they are, the students spend a lot of time only being supervised by their host families and there is plenty of opportunity to find trouble if you are looking for it," White said.
Students seeking deferred enrollment should also ask how college financial aid and merit awards will be affected. Some schools make students reapply for aid; some will not increase the aid even if your finances worsen.
ALTERNATIVES: Many gap-year experiences can be done just as easily during college. College summer breaks are long enough to learn a language or backpack around a continent. And often colleges will not give credit for a gap-year experience before a student enrolls, but they will give credit toward a degree for a semester abroad, a research internship or independent study after enrollment.
Dougharty, at Grinnell, encourages prospective students to explore those options "beyond the admissions desk," by consulting with the school's study abroad and career development offices.