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.  


Schools:  Adopt a Local Park and Gain a Classroom

Have you ever noticed that most schools are within walking distance, if not next to a park of one kind or another?  Some are big open green spaces with a few trees.  Others may be primarily concrete with play ground equipment and small patches of lawn.  And yet others may be wooded areas with wetlands and small paths.  Whatever the kind of park, many seem to be an underutilized resource for teaching and learning within the school day.  I suggest that schools should tap into this underused resource and “adopt” a local park.

I do not use the word adopt lightly.  In fact I would suggest a school go through a formal adoption process as this suggests a strong sense of commitment between a school and the entity that controls the park.  It is stronger than students’ picking up trash once and a while for a service learning project, and it shows a deeper commitment by the park board to be invested in the school.  Adopting also requires a long term commitment toward the well being of the park.  

How does a school go about adopting a park?  To begin this process, the school (parents, administration and students) must agree on the goals of what they want for this park and how they might utilize it as a place of learning.  During this time, a social studies class (or classes) could conduct the background research needed for a formal adoption.   They might go about finding the controlling entity of the park (city, county, state DNR, Federal etc.) and who are the people (including politicians) who are most closely connected to the particular park.  The basic history of the park, how it was named, and how it is funded could also be part of the research.  While this is happening, other students would put together a draft contract based on the goals and commitment expected.  Students would begin drafting letters to the park board and the appropriate officials.  Once this is completed the school could invite members of the park board to come to their school, or the students would ask to attend a park board meeting.  At this point a draft contract would be presented.  While the contract would not carry any financial commitment and would not be officially binding, it would be a show of public commitment on the part the school and the park board.

Once a park is “formally” adopted, the park becomes another academic classroom.   In order to examine how it may be used, I will break it down by subject area.  It would be better if lessons were interdisciplinary, and classes worked cooperatively, however since various academic standards must be addressed, it is easier to look at using a park through the lens of subject areas.


Beginning with math, there are multiple ways to use a park and address standards at the same time.  Younger classes can use the park as they learn shapes, measure distances, count species, and estimate height and length of objects.  They can figure out the square footage of the park or determine the ratio of lawn to concrete.  Playground slides can be measured for height and length to determine slope. Older students can   examine budgets and upkeep costs, measure daily or weekly usage and figure out
cost analysis.   

Science classes can identify animal and plant life that live in the park, monitor seasonal cycles, and determine the physics and engineering properties of the playground equipment.  If the park has a natural water source, water quality can be measured and monitored.  If the park is close to a major road or other high traffic areas, sound decibels could be measured at various locations and then plotted.  Soil samples could be taken at various locations and then analyzed for the make up and potential toxicity. 


A park is a rich place to hold Language Arts classes.  Poetry can be inspired simply by listening, seeing and experiencing nature or the outdoors.  Technical writing can be accomplished by describing various aspects and attributes with in the park.  Short story themes might be written around observed behaviors both within and around the park.   Authors such as Thoreau or Aldo Leopold can be read and discussed in the context of nature and open space.


There are many ways a social studies class can tie in lessons to an adopted park.  The history of the land the park is located on can be researched.  When was it developed, who was the original planner or advocate and why did it become a park?  What did the land look like prior to being a park and who were the original inhabitants?  The park land could be mapped out in detail according to geography standards.


The possibilities for the Arts are endless.  Whether it is drawings/sketching, painting, sculpting, taking photos, or simply exploring the beauty of nature, there are many ways of incorporating arts into a park.  Many parks even incorporate public art into the makeup of a Park.  What a great way to showcase student art work and projects.  Parks also offer many opportunities for performing arts as well, whether it is using open space for performing, or through the inspiration

Physical education is almost made to be carried out in a park.  Is there a basket ball court or a tennis court that might be used?  How might a playground be used in an obstacle course?  Open green spaces offer multiple opportunities for team games or challenges. 


How do you know a student is leaning what they should if they are out in the park frequently? It is important to have specific goals tied to outcomes for all academic activities that take place in a park.  This includes authentic assessment outcomes which require specific measurements. Therefore, students should be producing products based on the work and research they do around and within their adopted park.  They may produce a brochure that gives the history, basic park facts.  The flora and fauna, the overall attributes and recreational offerings, size and map of the park. They might hold a public symposium and invite people associated with the park, local politicians, people who spoke to their classes about the park, parents and others.  A book with students writing that was inspired by the park could be developed and even published on line.  The possibilities are endless, as long as they are all well thought out, tied to the original goals and understood by the students. 


Parks are designed to be used.  While some parks set aside land for habitat or species preservation, most parks are designed to be accessible and useful.  Parks provide a place for people to come together and mix with each other.  A deeper sense of connection and ownership of a community is developed.  This is not only true for students in the school, but also for other park users and those that live nearby. This may lead greater civic engagement, lower crime rates, or even more funding and grants available for future park development. 


Finally, and possibly most important, the students will develop a stronger sense of engagement and contentedness to the school and the community it is located in.  They will be active participants in their own education as they learn in the context of the real world.   Students will develop a sense of pride and commitment to their community.   All of this brings on higher attendance rates, lower discipline issues and ultimately greater academic achievement.  Adopting a park can truly be a win for all.


Be Sure you Know This – It will be on the Test

I have had the privilege to visit hundreds of class rooms and schools over the last 32 years. Unfortunately, one of the more common phrases I have heard from teachers at the end of class (or written on the board) is ‘be sure you know this (material); it will be on the test (tomorrow)’. Why do teachers say this?  The message this phrase sends, and reinforces, is that we go to school to learn so we can do well on tests.   It reduces the enormous and complicated task of educating our youth into a very narrow view of learning.  Students then believe that the purpose of schooling is to do well on tests and that then demonstrate learning has taken place.   I believe that a more realistic phrase should be "Be sure you know this; you will be using it soon". 


As an Education Professor, whenever I have asked my students why they wanted to go into teaching, I never once heard a response such as “I can’t wait to see how well they do on a test”. Never did they say “I am drawn to teaching because I love to see a student faces light up on test days”.   More often the answer to that questions was in the realm of the ‘joy of watching children succeed’ or the ‘love and passion’ of a particular subject area.    


No wonder so many young college students choose not to go into teaching; or those that do frequently leave the profession before five years.  They are consumed by testing, whether it is standardized or tests of their own making.   Ask a teacher what they did last night and the answer frequently is “I corrected papers or tests”.  Rarely do you hear them say with enthusiasm, “I was up developing really cool lessons or projects for the students to create.” 


This is not to say there should not be tests or standardized testing.   Tests are necessary for a variety of different reasons.  They can provide feedback to both the student and the teacher.  They can be used as one indicator among many that show evidence of the gap in equality.  They can give a snapshot on student progress.  However tests should be well thought out on how they are used, how much time is spent preparing and taking, whether there is a cultural bias, and how much do they actually contribute as an indicator of student progress.


The true test of a students learning comes as they go about their daily business, from when they are a youngster, to their life as an adult.  When they go to the store they have to be aware of a variety of math skills to manage their budget.  To be an active participant in our democracy they have to understand our history (the good and the bad) as well as the continually changing geo-political world.  As we face global changes in our climate they must understand chemistry, biology, and the interconnections of our environment and world.  They must understand how to use and manipulate language(s) effectively in order to communicate with others or to tell their own narrative.  To be active participants in their own health care and our health care system, they must understand a wide variety of biological functions, nutritional information, as well as various math skills.  None of this will come at them in the form of a written test.


Teachers, challenge yourself to say something different when a student asks if something will be on a test.  Try a response such as “We both need to know how well you understand this, however it is much more likely you will be using it in your future outside of school."  Let them know that yes, there is a need to assess their progress and test may be one indicator of that. Therefore, whatever you teach, questions related to that may appear in a test or another form assessment. 


Parents, when your child is doing home work or studying, ask them what they are studying and why.  If they cant’ answer the why or they say it is for the test tomorrow, think of an example of how the concept of what they are Learning comes into play in your daily life.   An example may not be readily apparent, however if you ponder it for a while it is more than likely that a real life example can be found.


The more we tie our teaching and learning to the real world, the more relevant school becomes to a young person.  It will be seen as a necessary means to a future rather than a series of tests, hoops and grades to endure. When this happens, attendance goes up, student management becomes easier and the teachers passion for teaching is fueled.  


Healing our Divide through “Reach-Listen-Learn-Lead”

There has been a great deal of talk since the last election and the inauguration of a new President of how divided our country is, both in terms of political and cultural views. Part of this divide can clearly be seen on political maps showing how people voted county by county through-out the U.S.  However, very little has been proposed regarding how to bridge this divide and create a culture of understanding and tolerance for others. I am in the process of trying to address this issue from the ground up with an urban and out-state/rural school exchange program. We have to look to our young people and give them the opportunity to help solve this serious problem confronting the very foundation of our democracy. It has become quite obvious that it will not happen through our politicians or most of the "grown ups" in this country. They are too busy going after those who they differ with or don't understand. Reach-Listen-Learn-Lead is a cross cultural exchange program aimed at bringing classrooms of urban and rural students together through electronic and physical exchanges. It is based on the philosophy of existing international cross cultural exchange programs.  It is designed for both Middle and High school age students.  The program is founded on the premise of reaching out to others that are different and listening to their viewpoint on things. This in turn opens up a dialogue that can be the foundation for understanding. This in turn helps develop our future leaders.  Please visit my website at and you will find more information as well as a Power Point that will give you more details on how the program works.  I can also be contacted at for more information.  It may feel good to preach to the choir, or march and protest (all of which have their place), but we must also be willing to Reach, listen, learn and lead to help bridge the divide.