Want to take a 'gap year'? Check your wallet

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on May 15, 2020

With so much uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number of young adults are least considering putting their college career on hold while they pursue personal interests, paid work, or humanitarian projects.

Choosing to take a gap year, of course, comes with financial implications. But it’s a move many students make, even before COVID-19.

Overall, between 40,000 and 60,000 students take gap time each year, according to estimates from the Gap Year Association.

USA Gap Year Fairs, which is owned by Go Overseas and promotes both domestic and international gap year programs at colleges across the country, reports a more than 200 percent increase over the past five years in the number of students who attended their fairs. More than 6,100 showed up for online or in person fairs so far in 2020.

“We have received an overwhelming amount of requests for more resources from high school guidance counselors and parents interested in learning more about gap year options for this year,” said Alia Pialtos in an interview, director of USA Gap Year Fairs in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Traffic to the Go Overseas gap year web page in April soared 27 percent from March, she said, and there has been a 20 percent spike in year-to-date traffic to its web content dedicated specifically to gap year opportunities in the United States.

“I do believe that this is evidence of a growing interest in gap year options for both high school seniors and undergraduate students faced with the very real possibility of a fall semester of online courses,” said Pialtos. “I suspect that we’ll continue to see more students and families explore domestic gap year options this fall given that there is still so much uncertainty regarding travel restrictions due to global health and safety concerns.”

Gap years are ideal for students who embrace experiential learning, she said, giving 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.

The concept of a gap year has long been embraced in European culture. And some notable personalities have reportedly taken a gap year (or two), including 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.

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.

Gap year costs

They must also be aware that a gap year does not come cheap.

While some gap programs, like Visitoz, Global Citizen Year, and City Year offer modest salaries or scholarship eligibility, most do not. And some cost the equivalent of a full-year tuition.

(Calculator: How much do I need to save for college? )

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 professional 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 that 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.

The costs of delay

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.

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, its employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.