Gap Year

Recently The Wall Street Journal wrote about high school graduates who chose to spend a year traveling, volunteering, and/or working before beginning college. This is what’s referred to as a “gap year”.

Parents often worry that gappers will suffer from a loss of momentum and conceivably bail on college altogether. In contrast, I worry that too many over programmed eighteen year olds automatically continue their education without any real sense of self, knowledge of the larger world, or appreciation for the educational opportunities provided them.

I wish far more eighteen year olds took a year off between high school and college to travel; to do service or earn money; to gain financial withitness; to learn about other people, places, and themselves; and to develop an intrinsic (versus parental) sense of educational purpose. Give me a first year seminar full of gappers and I guarantee you our discussions will be even more interesting than normal.

What type of gap year is best, a formal, programmed one, or an informal, open-ended one?

One reader of the piece, Fannahill Glen from Jacksonville, FL, made her preference for informal, open-ended, European-style gap years perfectly clear. I quote:

The traditional gap year is conducive to future success because of its sheer simplicity: You take a backpack and whatever handful of cash you have, and go. It is up to you to forge travel plans, earn cash to live on, and make new friends and travel companions. Teenagers find themselves making industrious choices to do things like harvest bananas for rather small wages, eat fewer meals daily (and only from street vendors) to save money and sleep in hostels where they share toilets and bedrooms with strangers, because it’s all they can afford. Contrast the skills and maturity one gains from such an experience with the American version: Pay a company $35,000, let them find you a cool job in a chic country and work for free for a year, with vacations on the holidays. It’s like the vaunted Year Abroad, without the rigors of a classroom. Awesome, no doubt, but not exactly taxing on one’s intellectual and social development.

The vast majority of American parents are probably too afraid to cut their eighteen year olds loose Fannahill-style. In my thinking, a programmed gap year is preferable to a mindless continuation of one’s education, but like Fannahill, I suspect the loosely structured model provides even more intellectual, social, and educational bang for the buck.