Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

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Updated on Apr 28, 2008

Princeton encourages it. Harvard’s a big fan. From Tufts to MIT, some of the most prestigious universities in the nation are urging students to consider something that would make most parents cringe: The idea of putting off college for a year in favor of some much-needed downtime. 

It’s called a “gap year.” And while it’s been a common and popular rite of passage in Australia and the U.K. for decades, the concept is now starting to gain significant steam here in America.

Why? A growing number of high school seniors are balking at riding the academic conveyor belt from preschool all the way to university. They’re burnt out. Or not quite ready. Or they want to explore a few interests before deciding what to study in college. So instead of packing their bags in anticipation of freshman year, they’re volunteering in New Orleans or teaching in Thailand. They’re starting the great American novel, or interning to help figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Understandably, that makes a lot of parents nervous. But before you drive your kid to college in an armored truck and deliver him to the dorm yourself, it’s important to understand the facts, including what a gap year is, and what it is not.

For one, a gap year does not mean that a student is doomed to remain degree-less forever. While there are no formal studies on the number of students who never end up making their way to college post-gap, anecdotal evidence from admissions officers across the country says very few actually drop off the college radar. Taking a gap year can actually make kids more focused and ready for the rigors of academic life. In fact, Harvard, arguably the most competitive university in the country, believes so much in the gap year that they encourage every student they admit to consider a year off before matriculation. And Princeton has just announced a new program called the “bridge year” that will allow newly admitted students to spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning their freshman year.

The reason behind higher education’s support of the gap year is clear: Better-prepared students mean higher completion rates. And it’s completion that matters. Parents should remember that getting a kid into college is only half the battle. According to the College Board, three out of five students who enter a public four-year college don’t manage to snag a degree within five years. And nearly 30 percent of all students who enter college don't return for their sophomore year. Considering the fact that this year’s average price at a four-year private college is a whopping $23,712 per year, it’s a pretty expensive place to dabble. Sending a kid who’s not ready to college is like sending a kid who’s not feeling hungry to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

That said, not all gap years are created equal. If you have a kid determined to take a year off, here are some guidelines to follow:

Have the money talk
Just because you’re willing to chip in for college doesn’t mean you’re on the hook for a gap year as well. Remember, it’s about learning responsibility in the real world. Be honest up front about what you are — and are not — willing to do. Require that your child create an in-depth budget for her year, in addition to telling you how she plans to contribute financially. While many students dream of a year of unfettered travel, it’s perfectly reasonable to require that your kid wait some tables for a few months to pay for all or some of the year.

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