Planning a Gap Year - Maximize Experience and Minimize Debt

When Malia Obama completed high school two years ago she decided to forgo heading straight into college.  She instead decided to take a gap year.  While she did apply (and was accepted) to Harvard during her senior year in high school, she did not attend directly after graduation.  Instead she took time off to travel and volunteer in several other countries (reportedly Peru and Bolivia) as well as explore a career potential with an internship in the film industry.   She also spent well needed time with her family.  All of this was well organized and fit into her overall post secondary plans.  This was a gap year.


For many, a gap year is actually a cost effective way to minimize college debt in the long term.  This may seem counter intuitive but consider the following:

      On average, college students change their major three times during their college career. (About 80 percent of US students change their major at least once.)**

      One-third of college freshmen don't return to the same institution for a second year.***

      The average cost of tuition & fees for the 2016–2017 school year was:

     $33,480 at private colleges (In Minnesota that cost is about $50,000)

     $9,650 for state residents at public colleges

     $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.*

      The average college graduate had $37,000 in debt.*

      Average monthly student loan payment is $351.*

      Only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.**

  * College Board , ** National Center for Education Statistics-NCES,  *** American College Testing - ACT


If the average cost per college class is about $3,000 (including fees and books) and a student takes just 6 classes that are not needed as they change majors –$18,000 has been spent unnecessarily and statically this is on the low end.  While this may not be considered a total loss of money (hopefully something is gained when taking any college course), if a student continues to wander around from interest to interest without meaningful purpose, the costs and debt can be significant.  This loss may also include wasted scholarship money. 


However, if a student takes a gap year and explores their interests while interning, traveling and volunteering, they are more likely to be focused during their formal education.  Let’s say a recent high school graduate decides to take a gap year.  They may spend up to 10,000 traveling and volunteering.  However if they spend part of the year interning they may save or even earn money.  Thus if a student spent 15,000 during a gap year they may save money in the long run by not changing majors.  Therefore a gap year can help maximize education experiences while minimizing the debt that frequently goes along with it.


While it might be easy to imagine Malia taking a year off traveling and interning, her experience is unique to her.  The biggest connection from her to others planning a gap year is the idea that a gap year must have purpose, be well planned and should fit into a student’s overall education and career goals.  Therefore a gap year should be integrated into an overall post secondary plan.  First the process of developing a plan must be addressed.  After a variety of topics are discussed and questions are asked, there must be a goal and then steps taken and a timeline created that will help reach the goal.  Given that many young people are very curious about many things and often prone to changing direction, the plan must be flexible. 


Ideally, a student and her or his family will begin to think about a post secondary plan somewhere between sophomore and junior year in high school.  Families should begin by discussing a student’s future career and life goals, current strengths, level of self discipline, and sense of independence.  What type of college or post secondary institution do they want to attend in regards to locations, size, distance from home, costs, extracurricular offerings, etc.  These discussions should also include altruistic ambitions, such as the role of spirituality in one’s life, what do they see as their role in greater society, and commitment to civic engagement.


Practical matters must also be addressed. The topic of money and college finances should be discussed openly.  What are a child’s expectations and what can a family afford?  What kind of scholarships might be available?  Do they expect to graduate in four years?  Have they considered taking time off from formal education to get an experience based education?


Once the overall goal of a post secondary plan is thought out, then the idea of how a gap year can fit in should be discussed.  There are a wide variety of reasons why a well organized gap year might be included in a student’s overall post secondary plan.  Some of those reasons are practical and others are purely based on altruism and personal fulfillment.   


  1. You’ll get a better understanding of what you want to do and study and what you want to avoid. As stated earlier, many students switch majors 3 or 4 times before deciding what they like.  These changes can be very expensive.
  2. You’ll do better in college. Students might worry that college admissions officials or professors will dismiss a student for taking a gap year. This isn’t true as many schools report that gap year students have higher GPAs and are more involved on campus.  
  3. You will gain a greater sense of self and independence.  You will quickly learn how to more efficiently manage finances, time, and logistics
  4. You will gain a greater sense of the world’s interconnectedness and see life through a variety of different perspectives.  
  5. You’ll be forced to integrate into a new culture, possibly learn a new language, meet people with very different life experiences, and may gain valuable international experience
  6. Your resume will stand out when you apply for jobs or a career.
  7. You will be unencumbered by debt. When else are you going to be 18 years old with no job, no mortgage payments, no significant other, no kids, no homework and no worries? Never. The answer is never.
  8. As a young adult you will probably never be in better health.
  9. You will create a lifetime of stories that are not boring.
  10. You will make new friends from all over the world.  With the internet and social networking it will be easy to keep up the friendships through a lifetime.


There are a wide variety of benefits to integrating a gap year into your overall post secondary plan.  However they must be well planned with purpose.  It is not a time to just go out and party.  There are a wide variety of organizations that help students plan gap year activities or programs.  They include everything from going to another country and volunteering or interning to wilderness experiences and challenges.  Some of them are very expensive and comprehensive, while others may be cheaper but may not be as comprehensive or organized.    

However there are very few organizations that help students and families develop overall post secondary plans.   While counselors in high schools generally do a great job at getting college info out to families and giving students college and career guidance, the average counselor to student ratio is about 1 counselor for every 425 students. It is simply not possible for every counselor to meet with every student and family and develop a plan.  Counselors should be regarded as a highly treasured resource in the plan but not be expected to develop a comprehensive and detailed plan for every student. 

Therefore this responsibility will inevitably fall to families.  The more open and honest discussions the easier it will be to put together a plan that makes sense to all.  It is important for parents to understand that while they may have hope and desire regarding their child’s future, as well as a financial stake, this is ultimately about their teenager and how they view their own future.  A solid plan should be built on the foundation of their teenagers desires.  At the same time, teenagers must understand that parents want the very best for their future and have a deep love and attachment to them; as well as a financial stake.  They must be willing to listen and understand where their parents are coming from. 


All of the above must be considered to develop a comprehensive and meaningful post secondary plan.  Several generations back this was not the case.  College costs were much cheaper and the debt that students carried was far less.  It was easier to graduate in four years and if you did not it still was not too expensive.  There were also far less opportunities to plan an organized gap year during the college years.  Much has changed since then and now it is vitally important to maximize experience and minimize debt.  While Malia Obama may not have to worry about debt, she sure is maximizing her learning experience. 

This is where Beyond the Walls Education comes in.  We help broker and mediate the discussions.  We develop comprehensiveness plans that meet the needs and desires of both students and their families.  Finally, we follow through and continue to work with families through out the post secondary process thus ensuring that the plan works for the student and their family.