There are very few decisions in a young person’s life as important as choosing a college and subsequent career. As graduation nears there is a rising pressure from parents and teachers for students to make a wise decision about their future. Conventional wisdom says that a student graduating from high school should immediately head off to college and declare a major in the first year. Yet looking at the landscape of the universities in this country there is a growing crisis beginning to overtake students and families alike. With the rising cost of education, a poor choice as a freshman can cost families thousands of extra dollars; and with the rising options for education, many students are graduating with degrees that they cannot – or will not – use. Among Christian households the more alarming reality comes when their children leave for college and return void of the faith they grew up with. The spiritual dropout rate is as startling as it is predictable among young Christians attending college.
Most everyone agrees that higher education is necessary, but there is mounting uncertainty about the readiness of our high school graduates proceeding immediately to college. Many have not considered if there are any alternatives to the long accepted approach. Perhaps students should consider taking a gap year – one year between high school and college to intentionally develop their personal identity and broaden their view of the world. A practice that is common place in Europe and Australia, the idea of taking a gap year between high school and college is gaining popularity in the United States. Gap year can provide many experiences for students such as the opportunity to travel, volunteer, or develop a better idea of who they are and what they want to pursue with their lives.
The Disturbing Reality.
Looking more closely at the problems facing families will help reveal the solutions that gap year can provide. The first area of concern is educational indecision and the accompanying results.
Educational Reality: Research shows that 50-70 percent of students will change their major at least one time, and many will change their mind three times before graduation. This generally means extending college by at least one semester. Tanya Mohn, a writer and gap year advocate, states in the New York Times, “Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that only 35 percent of students graduate in four years. Many take as long as five or six.” The dropout rates are equally alarming distressing, and Mohn explains in the same article that 30 percent of freshman will not make it to their sophomore year. The latest research shows only a little more than half of those who begin college will come out on the other side with a bachelor’s degree. These numbers can seem distant and meaningless – that is until parents realize that half of their children will leave college with debt and no degree. In many cases, the parents are left holding some of the fruitless debt as well.
Financial Reality: This leads to the second area of concern facing our students— the financial burden of student loans is rapidly growing as the cost of higher education skyrockets. The average cost of a four-year university currently sits around $30,336 per year and the average student loan debt carried by families has risen 500 percent since 1999. The price of education would be understandable if students were graduating with degrees, and subsequent jobs, and were able to pay back these loans. But in a recent article, Newsweek maintains that “more than half of all recent graduates are unemployed or in jobs that do not require a degree.” These numbers reveal a variety of problems within our current society, but one must ask if students can continue making these risky choices that will affect the rest of their lives both vocationally and financially. Are students getting an education at the expense of their future? Is there a way to better prepare students for making wise choices concerning college and their future careers? If so, would parents and educators consider leaving the conventional pattern in an effort to change these trends?
Spiritual Reality: These questions ought to be front and center in the minds of all who are looking into the future of their children and students. However, for those in the Christian community, the financial and educational trends should not be nearly as alarming as the spiritual trends facing the next generation. Barna Research Group released a study indicating that only “about three out of ten young people who grow up with a Christian background stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties.” These numbers are staggering. Nearly 70 percent of students depart for college and leave their faith at home with their parents, never looking back. A lack of personal identity, spiritual formation, and Biblical worldview is creating an unprecedented attrition rate of youth in our churches.
Much has been written concerning the spiritual dropout of college students from the Christian faith. The faith crisis among college students certainly has many facets, but at the core there seems to be a lack of spiritual foundation. A limited Biblical worldview causes many students to be swayed by liberalism in their universities. A lack of moral depth causes them to abandon their faith as they chase after pleasure. To meet this problem, Christian parents could look for a gap year program that specifically addresses these issues and is intentional about discipleship among the next generation.
All of these statistics and trends should cause parents and teachers to reflect on the process for sending students to college. What do these numbers mean? What are some possible ways to change the trends and get students on a track that will increase their chances of success? Looking at other countries as a model, one must pause to consider the rising trend of gap year programs. By engaging in an intentional gap year program students have the opportunity to establish personal identity and spiritual maturity. By travelling internationally, which is part of many gap year programs, they will broaden their view of the world. Gap year advocates argue that this allows students to choose a career path with more certainty and could even save parents money in the long term. These real advantages can be better seen by looking at the concerns raised by parents and teachers.
There are several common questions that arise in the minds of parents and teachers as they consider their students taking a year off between high school and college. The most common concerns are loss of educational momentum, cost, necessity, and loss of financial aid or scholarships.
Momentum: Harvard University, in an article written advocating gap year, highlights the concern of students losing educational momentum: “Parents worry that their sons and daughters will be sidetracked from college, and may never enroll. Both fear that taking time off can cause students to ‘fall behind’ or lose their study skills irrevocably.” Parents may wonder if taking a gap year would negatively impact their student’s grades when they enter college. An in-depth study done in Australia and the United Kingdom found,
that taking a gap year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college…In fact, in the United Kingdom, students who had taken a gap year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college…
Cost: Another concern from parents is the cost of a gap year program. The New York Times reports that the average cost of a gap year program is $10,000-$12,000. This seems like a high price to pay for a program if it does not guarantee a student’s advancement educationally or vocationally. Even with programs available for less than the average, the question remains as to whether or not they are worth the investment. Tanya Mohn believes they are, and in an article written for the New York Times she explains, “it makes economic sense for students…freshmen who [attend a gap year] are less likely to party too much, fail courses or change majors repeatedly – all of which can result in more time needed to graduate, and more expense.” One might even say that gap year provides parents with a form of higher education insurance. When students change their majors they increase the time spent at college and incur costs up to double the cost of the average gap year program. But by helping solidify a student’s identity and allowing them to make better choices in their education, gap year may actually save parents money in the long run.
Financial Aid: The fear that students will lose financial aid is quite understandable. However, in most cases students need not worry about losing scholarships or financial aid. Most universities, such as Middlebury College in Vermont, will simply allow students to defer enrollment for one year. When they return they will receive the same financial aid package they were offered upon high school graduation.
Being Sidetracked: There are many respected sources that show gap year can help prepare students for college and even put them at an advantage to those who go directly into higher education from high school. Harvard has long been a proponent of students taking a gap year, and every student accepted into Harvard is encouraged in their acceptance letter to do so. While addressing the fear of becoming sidetracked or falling behind, Harvard admissions team points out, “That fear [of being sidetracked or never enrolling] is rarely justified. High school counselors, college administrators, and others who work with students taking time off can help with reassurance that the benefits far outweigh the risks.” Holly Bull, from The Center for Interim Programs, is quoted in an article in Forbes as saying, “not only do most students go back to college, students often arrive at college more focused and refreshed, more mature, and often do better academically.” Parents should take comfort when one of the most respected Ivy League schools in our country stands behind the idea of gap year and shows the advantages that students gain when participating.
Necessity: Some parents may feel that gap year is unnecessary since their child already knows exactly what career they want to pursue and the best college for that pursuit. Even for these exceptional students, a gap year would add value to their college experience. The Center for Interim Programs, an organization that has spent more than three decades helping students make an effective transition from high school to college, points out that gap year can help “restore your enthusiasm after the pressure of K to 12…discover the relevance of classroom study to the world…build self-confidence and independence…[and even] improve chances for college acceptance.” Research backs up these claims. Much research has been conducted overseas, where gap years are more commonplace. An article by a high school in Massachusetts cites specific research from several countries. A study of Australian undergraduates found “that a gap year helped improve that academic motivation of students.” Another study of South African gap year students discovered “that the year away from school facilitated personal growth by allowing the young adults more time to explore and finalize future career plans.” And a study in the United Kingdom found that gap year “allowed the students go gain confidence, maturity, and independence that shaped their adult identity.” All these findings should encourage parents that gap year can deliver that which it promises for their teenagers. While gap year is probably not for every student, most could consider this as an option to help give students a foundation that will help them launch into their future.
The 360 Experience.
One can look in a variety of places to find examples of gap year programs. Many universities and organizations have developed excellent options for students. One organization that has been focused on discipleship of young people for over fifty years is Youth With A Mission (YWAM). They established Discipleship Training Schools (DTS) for Christian youth as a means to deepen their faith in God and help prepare them to share their faith with others around the world. Students engage in three months of classroom training where they learn more about their faith and the second three month phase is an “outreach” where they travel to another part of the globe.
In the United States, YWAM has recently launched a nine month gap year program called The 360 Experience. This program is specifically designed to be a gap year solution for Christian young adults. The 360 Experience is designed to bring personal discipleship while giving students a Biblical worldview, local church mindset, and a global perspective. These YWAM internships happen within a local church and provide Christian students with an opportunity for an intentional gap year that will help solidify the values they were raised with. Programs like these provide all the benefits of gap year that have been previously discussed while building Christian values and giving students an opportunity to travel and engage in evangelism. The 360 Experience is priced lower than the average gap year and their 9 month program, which includes 2 months overseas, costs around $8500. 360 launched their first program in coastal Maine, and they are gearing up to launch several more locations in other states. There are few of these types of programs that currently exist in the United States, but as the popularity of gap year continues to expand more programs like these are sure to be raised up around the country.
Daniel is a recent graduate of The 360 Experience in Maine, and his story typifies the benefits of gap year. Before attending the program he was like most high school graduates: unsure of what to do with his life. He recalls, “I thought I was going to be an engineer. I didn’t really have a plan as to how to get there…but I thought, ‘This is a good choice for me.’” With no particular drive toward engineering other than a decent living, it is hard to know whether or not he would have made it through college and on to a career. Since 360 he has developed a passion for helping others. He feels God’s calling toward counseling for men with addiction and creating homes for women and children who have been rescued from human trafficking. That passion is propelling him forward to more training with YWAM in order to achieve the deep sense of purpose God deposited in his heart during 360 Maine. Taking a year between high school and college gave him the opportunity to figure out who he was and what he was truly passionate about.
Every parent desires to see their students succeed in life and accomplish all they are capable of. While some may still contend that students should go immediately from high school to college, it is difficult to ignore the apparent advantages that exist for students attending a gap year program. Educationally, the United States is losing its place as a leader among developing nations and currently ranks number twelve in higher-education attainment. In his book College (Un)Bound Jeffery Selingo writes, “As the baby boomer generation leaves the workforce, the country risks having successive generations less educated than the ones that preceded them for the first time.” Financially, parents should begin to look at the current trends in our higher education system and realize they cannot afford to keep sending their indecisive children to incur crushing debt for degrees they are not likely to use. Spiritually, churches and Christian families ought to grow tired of watching their young people being shipped off to universities only to return without their faith intact. When the price finally exceeds the desire for status quo, gap year will remain as one proven alternative for parents and leaders to prepare their students for college and bring change to the next generation.
by Matthew Osgood,
National Director of Development for 360