History of the Gap Year, Part 2

Gap Years Emerge in the U.S.

Although taking a Gap Year before college is popular in Europe and almost a rite of passage in the U.K., the practice of taking a Gap Year in the U.S. has been slower to develop.

The first gap year organization in the U.S., named Dynamy, was formed in Worchester, MA in 1969. Born out of a frustration with the lack of structured options available to youth beyond college or an entry-level job, the founders created Dynamy to help students develop confidence, learn about their unique strengths and abilities, pave the way for their own passions, and help them gain a sense of community.

Gap Year programs were initially promoted in the U.S. by Cornelius Bull, a teacher and headmaster who saw the need for real-world learning experiences alongside academic teachings. Some of the earlier programs in the U.S. were more akin to study abroad programs directed at undergraduate students and then grew to incorporate those in high school. One example of this is SEA Semester, formed in 1971 in Woods Hole, MA. Its primary focus has been teaching students about marine environments through various study abroad and Gap Year experiences. Rustic Pathways started in Australia in the 1980s, expanded to the U.S. in the late 1990s and then added shorter programs geared to high school students, and finally launched Gap Year programs in 2007.

Harvard University Weighs In

In the late 1990s, Harvard University sparked interest in Gap Years by suggesting in its admission letters that accepted students consider deferring the start of college for a year. Harvard admission officers made the case for Gap Years in an essay that is frequently cited titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” originally published in 2000, based on their observations of applicants over many years.

Gaining Momentum Over the Last Decade

In the early 2000s, there were still only a handful of students in the U.S. taking Gap Years. Over the last 5-10 years, however, a number of factors have combined to increase awareness of Gap Years and the number of students choosing this option:

  • Leaders such as Karl Haigler, Bob Clagett and others began to collect and publish data on the benefits of Gap Years, which began to create a more positive view of Gap Year benefits
  • A circuit of Gap Year “fairs” began which helped to introduce a generation of students and educators to the idea of waiting a year before starting college
  • In 2016, President Obama’s daughter Malia elected to take a Gap Year before attending college leading to a surge of media attention and public interest in Gap Years
  • The first industry group was formed called the American Gap Association to create program standards and advocate for Gap Years
  • An increasing number of high schools feature Gap Years in annual post-secondary planning meetings with 11th and 12th grade students and parents.

COVID and Looking Ahead

A silver lining of COVID is the extent to which the pandemic caused students to rethink starting college immediately after high school, due to a desire to avoid online classes and wait for a better on-campus experience. This resulted in a huge increase in students from the high school class of 2020 taking a Gap Year. We have previously estimated that the number of students taking a Gap Year tripled from prior years to 6-7% last year.

While we don’t know if the number of students choosing to take a Gap Year will revert to pre-COVID levels, we are sure that the awareness of the Gap Year option and interest in learning more is here to stay!

Diane Willock, Gap Year Solutions Research & Marketing Associate, contributed to this post.

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