A growing number of young adults are opting to put their college career on hold while they pursue personal interests, internships, or humanitarian projects, a concept that has long been embraced in European culture. And they follow in some famous footsteps.
Some of the most notable celebrities who have reportedly taken a gap year (or two) include entrepreneur Elon Musk , the Duke of Cambridge Prince William , former president Barack Obama’s eldest daughter Malia Obama , actor Mathew McConaughey , Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling , and Apple founder Steve Jobs .
USA Gap Year Fairs, which promotes both domestic and international gap year programs at colleges across the country, reports a 230 percent increase over the past five years in the number of students who attended their fairs. More than 6,700 showed up this year alone.
“Gap years are for students who embrace experiential learning,” said Alia Pialtos in an interview, director of USA Gap Year Fairs, which is run by Dynamy, a residential internship program based in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It gives them time to better understand themselves.”
Students who take gap years, she adds, are statistically more likely to finish their degree in four years.
“They often come back with a better understanding of what they want to study and pursue as a career and are generally better prepared to take on life’s responsibilities,” said Pialtos.
Students who opt to delay their college degree, however, have an important decision to make in terms of how they'll spend their time: lounging on a beach, volunteering, living abroad and learning a new language, or gaining clarity on their future career by participating in job-related opportunities.
They must also be aware that a gap year does not come cheap.
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Programs that require students to incur significant debt are best left to students who can afford it, said Bob Wander in an interview, a financial advisor with Wander Financial Services in New York City.
“It’s not the best idea to do a gap year that will contribute to your future college debt,” he said, noting it is possible a small amount of debt incurred could be justified if students gain a skill set that is relevant to their future career and ultimately renders them more employable.
Wander said, too, that taking a year off gives parents and students additional time to save for tuition costs, which helps to minimize future debt.
Those of limited means, however, should pursue a program with at least some form of compensation, or a volunteer opportunity that covers living expenses.
They should also crunch the numbers so they understand the true cost of putting their education on hold, said Elaine King, founder of Family and Money Matters in Miami, Florida, in an interview.
“Consider not just the cost of the gap year program, plus living expenses that year, but the opportunity cost of entering the labor force a year late,” she said, noting she is in favor of finishing school as quickly as possible. “Whatever your first year salary would be, that’s the amount of money you are giving up.”
Students who are considering a gap year should also do some serious soul searching, said King.
“Really explore why you want to do this,” she said. “If it’s to change the world, you can accomplish that better with a college education. Go into a program that lets you help solve world hunger. You can really focus on making a bigger impact on the world by getting a degree and going at it with a roadmap as opposed to going solo.”
If the answer is because you aren’t yet sure what you want to study, consider working instead and living at home, while you save for future tuition.
Indeed, the decision to take a gap year requires careful consideration and a financial plan.
Pialtos recommends students check with the school they plan to attend to determine whether they allow for gap year deference, and whether they will roll over any scholarships or financial aid they may receive.
“Some colleges will and some won’t,” said Pialtos, noting schools and towns may also offer scholarships and financial aid for full-time volunteers. “It’s all done on a case-by-case basis so you want to do your homework.” One other way to potentially finance a gap year? “Some students are using online crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, to help pay their way,” she said.
Hey, it’s worth a try.
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This article was originally published in September, 2016. It has been updated.