Unprecedented Numbers of Students Are Taking a Gap Year. What Should They Do With the Time?

Aug 17, 2020

In ordinary times, Harvard University has made a practice of encouraging its admitted students to consider deferring admission and taking a gap year. Twenty percent of its first-year students have now taken them up on that offer—roughly three times the number that usually defer.

Harvard students aren’t the only ones doing so in a time of COVID-19. At MIT, 8 percent of students are deferring admissions—up from 1 percent in normal years. At Bates College, the number is 10 percent—nearly three times the usual rate. At Williams Colleges, roughly 25 students generally defer admission. This year, 90 did.

According to a recent survey, up to 40 percent of students nationwide are seriously considering taking a gap year. With unprecedented numbers signaling that they will take a year off, what exactly will they, or should they, do with that time?

Research prior to the pandemic has suggested the power of taking a gap year before college. One study from Middlebury, for example, indicates that students who take a year off do better academically in terms of grades, even after controlling for demographics, test scores and entering grades.

In ordinary times, students taking a gap year often used that time to pursue opportunities for meaningful in-person experiences. Usually, that meant some combination of work and travel. But given the pandemic, neither of those are easy—or even possible—to come by.

From research on gap years for my book “Choosing College,” students exploring this opportunity—and educators considering what it means for them—should understand four things about the upcoming year.

A Year On, Not a Year Off

First, as students reconsider their college choices and see their dreams dashed by the inability to pay or enroll, they should reframe a gap year or part-time enrollment not as a year off, but as a year on purpose. Rather than see it as a step backward, it’s an opportunity to take a “discovery year” to learn about themselves. What are their passions, what do they dislike, and how can they best contribute to the world?

Given the cost to humanity during the pandemic and resulting recession, students are facing their generation’s crucible moment. Historic events can shape the convictions of a cohort. Pearl Harbor spawned the “Greatest Generation.” President John F. Kennedy inspired individuals to enter public service. The health and economic crises underway—and their impact on society—offer no shortage of challenges. But where there are problems, there are also opportunities.

If students use the time right, it can build their sense of what’s possible. During a year of discovery for 18- to 22-year olds, individuals shouldn’t be seeking to gallivant around Europe (nor is it possible), but ought to learn about themselves—their strengths, their purpose and what pathways are possible.

Online, there are plenty of opportunities to explore possible career paths through short-term skill-training programs, virtual internships and apprenticeships, and other remote experiential learning opportunities. In-person services are also in demand, such as volunteering on the frontlines to help amid the health crisis. Pursuing these opportunities is less about settling on a career path, but more about learning and reflecting about oneself.

Curated Gap Years

The good news is that students don’t need to put together the pieces of a compelling gap year by themselves. As the Gap Year Association showcases, numerous programs already do that heavy lifting, many of which have created virtual offerings to account for the current circumstances.

Global Citizen Year, for example, has launched Global Citizen Academy in partnership with the Minerva Project, to allow high school graduates worldwide to build skills to unlock self-awareness, understand the world and drive impact. The courses from Minerva are eligible for credit, and in an effort to make the program accessible to all, Global Citizen Year is offering the program with a “pay what you can” tuition model.

Year On, another gap-year program provider, has created a 15-week virtual experience to combine skill building with a coach and community with real-world opportunities.

For those seeking something more tied to the workforce, Parachute Bridge offers a new program, Career Launcher, to help students become “the most employable version of themselves.”

Other programs like Boost by Kaplan make these types of options affordable and accessible to a large slice of the population—a real consideration given some of these programs cost several thousand dollars. That said, many also offer financial aid for those who can’t afford the full cost.

Ideas in the Wings

There are also compelling ideas for other ways the time could be spent.

New York University professor Scott Galloway has suggested that the United States build a “Corona Corps” in which students “would be trained in modern handheld technologies that provide facile, crisp communication and organization skills that arrest geometric spread. In addition, Corps members could become apprentices for jobs in key parts of the supply chain we now deem essential (delivery, warehouse workers, etc.).”

Similarly, Brown University professor Matthew Kraft’s idea for a “tutor corps” could also provide an important avenue for students taking a discovery year, not just recent college graduates as he proposed originally. In this model, recent high school graduates could serve as tutors for current K-12 students to give back in a time of highly uneven schooling experiences across the country.

Ben Kornell, CEO of Altitude Learning (formerly AltSchool), has proposed that there be a Covid-19 service corps to make sure learning pods are available for all students. Of the 1.6 million adults that he estimates the country would need to provide free childcare, there’s no reason that some of these spots couldn’t be reserved for students taking a gap year.

What Schools Can Do

Schools can and should help students access the benefits of a discovery year by leveraging their financial aid budgets to make the experience affordable, and allowing some of the work that students complete during the discovery year to count for credit. This is in their interests because it can help them come to college with greater clarity and purpose—and thus be more likely to graduate.

One approach is partnering with existing gap-year programs. This is essentially what schools that work with Verto Education are doing. Colleges that partner with Verto send students abroad for the first year—and the experience counts for credit. (Because that’s not possible in the short term, Verto is offering an online experience for the fall in partnership with Minerva, and then plans for students to travel abroad in the second semester in 2021, Verto’s CEO Mitch Gordon said.)

Schools could also re-conceptualize the first-year experience as a series of immersive sprints through different fields instead of a set of general education courses. Degree of Freedom, a new college that recently purchased Marlboro College campus in Vermont, appears to be taking this approach. It will offer dedicated apprenticeships in which students can learn about themselves and different career trajectories, according to the school.

Other schools are offering gap-year programs themselves. Champlain College is offering a semester-long “journey into academic college life, holistic well-being, and finding meaning through virtual internship and service experiences.” And Boise State is offering a “Bronco Gap Year” with the opportunity to explore one’s passions while taking classes from Coursera that will count for credit.

The Right Path for You

As students defer college in unprecedented numbers, that doesn’t mean they should waste the year ahead. Far from it. Even in a pandemic and recession, there are plenty of opportunities to invest in themselves to build a sense of purpose and how they can contribute during these challenging times.


Other news