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Why We Should Make It Easier for High School Grads to Take a "Gap Year"

When students take a year off before college to gain real-world experience, everyone wins.

Should more American students take a year off between high school and college to gain real-world experience, tangible skills, and some maturity? That's the thinking behind "gap years," a purposefully planned year of volunteer work and internships. Although they're growing in popularity in the States, they're still not as common here as they are in some other parts of the developed world. But after 12 years of studying, maybe encouraging graduates to take a year off and apply that book learning isn't a bad idea.

As the St. Louis Dispatch reports, the number of high school grads taking gap years isn't exactly known since there isn't clear government data showing whether a student is taking time off or just choosing not to go to college, period. But, one indicator of the rise of gap years is the cottage industry that has emerged to support students who want to take one, "complete with consultants, advice books and information fairs." Some top schools, like Harvard and Princeton, are changing their admissions policies for students who want to take time off before enrolling.

So why should more students be taking gap years? Because the chance do public service work or get first-hand experience with a potential career gives a student a much better sense of what they want to do and how they can make a difference in the world. In contrast, according to education consultant John Austin, if college is "just the next thing you're doing, there's no motivation to show up. Too many 18-year-olds are going to college, and it's not their steps. It's their parents' steps."

Of course, one of the problems with gap years has been that many of the structured programs out there are expensive. Some cost as much as $1,500 for a month. With those kinds of prices, and limited scholarship opportunities, it's usually not an option for students from less affluent backgrounds to take a year off to go live in Africa and work on a microfinance project.

If we want gap years to become the norm, we should make it easier for students to actually take them. It wouldn't hurt to look at the example of City Year, the service program that places young people in education settings. City Year offers participants a stipend to cover living expenses, and, because it's an AmeriCorps program, it also provides a $5,500 award that students can put toward the cost of college.

Indeed, what if more nonprofits and businesses here in the States created structured gap year programs for recent high school graduates? The students would get the experience of making a difference in their communities, and the organizations would get an influx of young, enthusiastic workers ready to hit the ground running. Doesn't this sounds like a win-win for everyone?

photo (cc) via Flickr user cityyear

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