Why Take a Gap Year?

 By Ethan Knight, Executive Director, American Gap Association, and Sarah Persha, IECA (OR)

From all available data it is clear that gap year programs have profound impact on young people including personal growth, academic attainment, and postcollege success. The two most common reasons students cite for taking a gap year are “burnout from the pressures of getting into college” and “a desire to know more about myself.” With students increasingly reporting that the achievement bar has gone up for the most competitive colleges, forcing students into relentless performance for the sake of college acceptance, it’s no great surprise, then, that the second most common reason would represent a deeper pursuit of self alignment and personal awareness.

Data from a study by Haigler and Nelson (2009) have shown that students who take a gap year return to college at a rate of 90% within a year and pursue their studies with renewed focus. There are significant academic benefits to the gap year as demonstrated by over-performance on GPAs and a shorter path to graduation as compared to peers who did not take a gap year. For example, the trends in the study also showed that average students will change majors 3–5 times in college, contributing to an average graduation time of six years—and that doesn’t factor in the almost 40% of students who simply never complete any college degree.

In contrast, students who have taken a gap year typically graduate in just four years, with a median of 3.75 years (Haigler and Nelson, 2009). Over the long haul, taking a gap year also improves a young person’s employment prospects and boosts civic engagement. At the personal growth level, the data also show that 86% of students who have taken a gap year report that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their careers once they get there. And as an added bonus, the upfront investment of a gap year can save parents money over the scope of a student’s academic career if the student graduates in four years.

Parental Concerns

Most parents have concerns about the academic impact of a gap year as well as the safety of their child on a gap year. Both are valid considerations. Where safety is concerned, data from Insurance Claims Data and Mortality Rate for College Students Studying Abroad, a March 2016 study from the Forum on Education Abroad, confirms that students are actually safer on programs in the developing world than they are on college campuses domestically. The American Gap Association (AGA), for example, vets organizations according to a robust 56-page application that incorporates standards from outdoor education, higher education, study abroad, service learning, and others in an effort to provide as much safety consideration as possible. AGA accredited programs are among those that have demonstrated a commitment to the safety of students in gap year programs and have critical reporting requirements to ensure that student safety never becomes an afterthought.

Costs and Funding

The costs associated with taking a gap year vary greatly, some experiences offer a stipend and money toward higher education and other programs are priced equivalent to time spent in college. Most students begin planning (and saving) for their gap years a year or two in advance. Last year $2.8 million in needs-based scholarships were made available through individual programs. Some gap year providers are also able to access federal financial aid dollars (FAFSA). Private scholarships, such as Hostelling International’s Explore the World Scholarships—which this past season were awarded to 61 recipients and valued at $2,000 each—are another means of funding.

Within the larger context of education, we are increasingly finding that universities are giving away scholarships for gap years. Florida State University has been at the leading edge of the academic community in valuing the experiential learning that happens on a gap year through deferment policies and a scholarship that is earmarked specifically for students who have taken a gap year. UNC Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship is another example of a progressive initiative by a public university to help students design an educational and transformative gap year that will support their academic studies and career path moving forward. Through its Community Engagement & Leadership Scholarships, Warren Wilson College provides money to eligible gap year graduates who matriculate with them, recognizing that those students perform better on campus and in society. Other universities are in the process of creating such initiatives as well.

Program Options

Experts, including gap year alumni, recommend beginning a gap year with something structured to provide a context within which students can gain skills and build confidence as they subsequently transition to more independence for the latter portions of their gap year. Examples of AGA accredited organizations providing structured gap year programs abroad include Thinking Beyond Borders, combining deep cultural immersion, fieldwork with experts, and engaging readings and discussions; National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), with a focus on leadership and outdoor skills in some of the most awe-inspiring locations in the world; and Pacific Discovery, which offers experiential education programs that are deliberate overland journeys.

For students looking for a domestic program, options include Ridge Mountain Academy, a campus-based academy that focuses on mountain sports, education, and life skills as well as Outward Bound, which offers courses in some of the most spectacular and inspiring settings in the United States. AmeriCorps is another domestic option that provides a well-structured program, paying for the participant’s housing and food for the full year. Those who successfully complete the program are awarded a $5,700 stipend to use towards continuing education.

It is always a good idea to consider working with a gap year counselor for something more independent—specialists who have a long history in vetting placements and through their extensive networks can not only provide appropriate structures for student support but also, in many cases, reduce the financial burden through those same connections.

Deferring University Admission

Deferment policies vary greatly and some specify what kind of college credit (if any) they will honor as a result of the gap year. We still encourage students to apply to college, get accepted, and then defer for the gap year—in that way students already have a plan for college upon gap year completion. The American Gap Association has an extensive list of the deferment policies of colleges and universities organized by state. Be sure to check with the particular institution and ask if deferment is possible even if one is not initially offered; the data is on your student’s side in establishing the value of taking an experiential year on (not off) between high school and a university.

Personal, Emotional, and Social Growth

With current concerns over delays in maturity and protraction of dependence as highlighted by emerging-adult research (Arnett 2014), gap year experiences represent an opportunity to step out of the sequence of high school immediately followed by college with a value-based event in between: discovering the resiliency of one’s own self with others in another land or culture (or state or project), where discomfort and challenge are supported by trip leaders and peers. Anecdotally, gap year students continue to report that they used the support and relationships with their gap leaders and fellow students where before they may have relied upon parents or dismissed their emotional needs. Developing self-advocacy and autonomy with support continues to be a positive comment in follow-up polls with students who complete a gap year.

Ethan Knight can be reached at ethan@americangap.org. Sarah Persha, Dean Doering & Associates, can be reached at sarah@deandoering.com.


Arnett, Jeffrey. 2014. Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Haigler, Karl and Rae Nelson. 2009. The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit From Time Off Before or During College. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.

The Truth About Liberal Arts Education

By S. Georgia Nugent, Senior Fellow, Council of Independent Colleges

As the former president of two liberal arts colleges, I am dismayed by the misinformation surrounding these institutions and the value of a liberal arts education. For our young people to make well-informed decisions about their future, they need accurate and up-to-date information about the array of choices American higher education offers. Yet many of the stories circulated in popular media today present distorted, stereotypical, or downright wrong information about colleges and universities.

The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), an association of more than 650 small and medium-sized private colleges around the country, has launched a multimedia campaign to serve as a reliable source of information about private, liberal-arts-based education. This public information campaign, recipient of three national media awards, has produced a broad array of online resources for students, parents, and college counsellors.

To combat the five most common misunderstandings about a liberal arts education, here’s the truth:

A liberal arts education is for everyone. Although a liberal arts education is often portrayed as only for the elite, that’s not the truth. In fact, private liberal arts colleges enroll the same or a slightly higher percentage of low-income students as do the flagship public universities. Nearly one-third of all private college students are from low-income backgrounds. Even more important, all students—but especially underrepresented or low-income students—graduate in a shorter amount of time when they enroll at liberal arts colleges (NCES 2009). And that means fewer semesters of tuition and an earlier start on a career.

Liberal arts colleges are affordable. It is true that what liberal arts colleges offer—small classes, personal mentoring by full-time faculty members, and the many opportunities for learning and growth inherent in a residential, on-campus experience—is expensive. But it’s also true that those colleges offer six times more student aid than is provided by the federal government. Students at independent colleges are twice as likely to receive financial aid as those at public institutions, and the average grant received is three times as large as the average grant at public institutions. As a result, the net cost of attendance can be surprisingly close to—or even less than—that of attending a state college.

Graduates’ debt remains manageable. Although it’s common to hear that liberal arts graduates incur staggering debt, more than 25% of students who graduate from small, private liberal arts colleges have no debt at all (Radwin et al. 2013). For other graduates, the average amount of debt is the same today as it was in 2007: about $19,500. That is approximately the same cost as an economy automobile. But there are no doomsday stories in the media about young people incurring “staggering debt” to buy a car. Yet the value of the auto decreases the moment it’s driven off the lot, while the value of a college degree pays enduring dividends throughout life. The US Census Bureau indicates that lifetime earnings for a college graduate exceed those of non-degree earners by $1 million. A $25,000 investment toward a million-dollar-return seems pretty good. (It’s also important to note that about 40% of the national student loan debt is for postgraduate programs, such as law or medicine, not for undergraduate degrees.)

A liberal arts education has practical value. We live in a world where future graduates will likely be employed in roles that don’t even exist today. What they will need to succeed are skills in problem solving, research, written and oral communication, teamwork, and a disposition toward life-long learning. More and more, employers are finding that liberal arts graduates excel in those qualities. This kind of learning is actually more practical than training in a specific skill that may well be obsolete soon after graduation.

Liberal arts graduates find employment. One of the most surprising and misguided myths about liberal arts education is that graduates are not employable. First, the unemployment rate for college graduates, even in the depth of the recent recession, was about half that for non-college graduates. More specifically, for graduates of small, private, baccalaureate colleges, recent annual studies carried out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that approximately 90% of graduates were employed or enrolled in graduate studies within six months of graduation. Both the rate of employment and the average compensation exceeded those for graduates of other types of institutions.

Know the Facts

At CIC, we know that students and parents are eager to understand the path from college to employment. That’s why CIC developed http://www.LiberalArtsLife.org to help answer the question, What can you do with a liberal arts degree? The site uses video clips, photographs, statements from graduates and employers, and animated data visualizations to tell the story of the value that a liberal arts education provides.

Video highlights from the national symposium, The Liberal Arts in Action, featuring successful liberal arts graduates from many walks of life discussing how their education has influenced their lives, can be seen at http://www.cic.edu/SymposiumHome. A more complete overview of a liberal arts education and liberal arts colleges is presented by http://www.LiberalArtsPower.org.

The Twitter feed @SmartColleges and Facebook page facebook.com/SmartColleges both provide real-time information, news, and commentary relevant to liberal arts education. And the newly launched Instagram.com@SmartColleges features graphic images, videos, campus photos, and tips to encourage prospective students to consider a liberal arts education.

An extremely rich array of resources designed for the education professional, including data, infographics, research reports, and a curated selection of publications and editorials, is available at http://www.cic.edu/LiberalArts.

The liberal arts college is a uniquely American phenomenon (although it’s increasingly being emulated around the world). Arguably, it has been a significant factor in our nation’s success in innovation and entrepreneurship. It is imperative for prospective college students to have access to the facts about what such an education can provide.


NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). 2009. The Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/bps.

Radwin, David, Jennifer Wine, Peter Siegel, and Michael Bryan. 2013. 2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: Student Financial Aid Estimates for 2011–12. Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013165.pdf.

S. Georgia Nugent can be reached at gnugent@cic.nche.edu.

A Holistic Approach to Preparation, Planning, and Placement for Students With LD

By Kyle Kane, JD, IECA (SC)

The last several years have seen a welcome increase in the number of students with learning challenges going off to a four-year college. Although students with learning disabilities attend at half the rate of the general population, they are beginning to recognize that they can also reap the benefits of participating in the traditional college experience.

That is the good news. The bad news is that just 34% of them will graduate in four years, which compares to the national average of 52% of their neurotypical peers (Sanford et al. 2011). That low completion rate is traumatic for the students who fail and expensive for their families. Although students with learning differences drop out of college for a variety of reasons, many of them are simply not prepared for the transition to college and independence.

As independent educational consultants (IECs), we must be leaders in the process of educating families, helping them identify areas of challenge, find resources to address those deficits, and develop practical plans for support in college. We can do this in many ways, including:

Guiding families and students to critically examine their academic skill level. Families frequently overlook the all-important invisible academic skills, such as planning, writing, and studying. Do students understand how to plan for the completion of the assignment? Do they understand how to construct and execute an essay? Are they highlighting too much? Too little? These are areas that IECs become aware of when they work with students on their essays and applications. If students exhibit significant deficits, it is important to take steps to resolve them. High school is the time to target those issues.

Guiding families and students to evaluate their nonacademic skills, such as independence and social-emotional competence. We help families identify areas of challenge as early as possible and use effective strategies to strengthen these essential skills. Being capable of handling money, taking medications, and socializing appropriately are important skills to have and must be practiced regularly in the safe setting of home under the guidance of families.

Helping students hone their self-advocacy skills. The difference between accommodations in high school and college are significant. Students’ IEPs do not follow them to college, and colleges are not required to seek out and accommodate students; instead, the responsibility lies with the student to access the accommodations and services they need to be successful. The difference is because colleges are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), not the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Given the freedom to choose whether to disclose a learning disability, most students choose not to disclose in college. In fact, only 17% of students eligible for disability services will register for them in college, although 94% of them used accommodations and services in high school (Cortiella and Horowitz 2014). To be successful, students must understand this difference, acknowledge their need for support, and practice exercising their self-advocacy skill muscles while in high school. We can help students practice throughout our process by talking to them frankly about strategies that help them succeed and encouraging them to use them.

Providing insight and advice about the appropriate level of college accommodations and support based on the psycho-educational or neuropsychological report and consultation with the psychologist. Obviously psycho-educational and neuropsychology reports provide a perspective on the student that is highly valuable in evaluating student capabilities and readiness. But frequently families do not understand—or they misunderstand—the report in terms of the student’s functional limitations and the implications for college placement. IECs can provide clarity and perspective to families that will help them make solid decisions about the best learning environment for their students.

Collaborating with the professionals in students’ lives. Although most professionals who work with students with learning challenges are focused on one specific aspect of need, IECs provide the 30,000-foot view of what is necessary for college and beyond. We are uniquely positioned to start the conversation about where the students are and where they need to be by graduation from high school. Gaining the insights of other professionals is also highly useful because it provides a depth of knowledge about the student that is important as IECs search for the best next step for students.

Introducing tutors, coaches, and advocates who understand students’ different learning styles. It is often difficult for families to find tutors, coaches, and others who truly “get” their students. IECs work to develop a network of tutors, teachers, coaches, and advocates who bring the knowledge, creativity, and experience to effectively work with our students.

As IECs, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to increase the college-readiness and college success of the young people we serve. We must approach our students in a holistic manner and ensure, as best we can, that they are prepared to succeed in college and beyond.


Cortiella, Candace and Sheldon H. Horowitz. 2014. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues (Third Edition). New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Sanford, Christopher, Lynn Newman, Mary Wagner, Renee Cameto, Anne-Marie Knokey, and Debra Shaver. The Post High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities Up to 6 Years After High School: Key Findings, From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Kyle Kane, The College Consulting Collaborative, can be reached at kyle@collegeLD.com.