Anyone who has followed the Gap Year movement knows that there was once a stereotype of the Gap Year student. Think “backpacking across Europe”. This was the image from the 1970s through the 1990s. While it wasn’t totally on the mark, there was some truth to this. Early on, Gap Years tended to attract students who had a reason to take a break before college, and were looking for some adventure and to “get out and see the world” (similar to the original Grand Tour). Often but not always these students had the financial means to afford these trips. Early Gap Year programs such as Where There Be Dragons aligned with this focus.
Fast forward a few years, and as the 2000s arrived, an increasing number of students wanted to focus Gap time on volunteer and service work. In the U.S., City Year, Americorps NCCC and other opportunities emerged for students to contribute to society. Outside the U.S., students found service-oriented programs and many designed their own independent activities to help others. New programs such as Global Citizen Year launched to increase awareness of global issues, enable participation in global activism, and create deeper cultural immersion. This gave rise to concerns about voluntourism, and the development of principles to help guide ethical service work. (Note: Gap Year Solutions provides all students embarking on independent travel with a comprehensive Pre-Departure Guide to assist in understanding these issues.)
Global Citizen Year’s website declares that “Today’s education system shuttles kids from high school to college without opportunities to reflect on who they are, what the world needs, and how to build a meaningful life.” We would add that an increasing number of graduating high school students are ill-prepared for independent college life. Data shows that one-third or more of first year college students do not return for sophomore year. Eight years ago, we founded Gap Year Solutions because we saw a real need to offer new approaches for these students. Our mission, which hasn’t changed since then, is to help students increase college success by focusing on “real world learning” and improving life skills. Others have now recognized this need, and providers of Gap Year services have increasingly pivoted to supporting students in the transition to college.
COVID-19 (here, here and here) certainly caused in increase in students taking a year off before college. We estimate based on our research that the number of students taking a Gap Year tripled during the first year of the pandemic. This new cohort of “Gappers” sought to avoid online learning and preferred to wait until they could experience more of their four years of college in an on-campus setting.
Now, there is further change occurring in the mix of Gap Year students. Many families have reached out to us in the last few weeks as their students have either been rejected or waitlisted at their list of colleges. The further declines in college acceptance rates has been astounding. Many more schools have entered the “single digit club”, accepting less than 10% of applicants. Students who don’t apply or aren’t accepted during the Early Decision process – during which some schools are now accepting over 50% of their applicants – are finding themselves facing near impossible odds.
Some students are now finding themselves shut out of all of their preferred schools – including their safeties. A typical comment from one family: “We were completely unprepared for him being wait listed at all the colleges that he was interested in attending this year, so now we’d like to come up with a plan.” Many of these students are considering delaying the start of college to reconsider their options and reapply to schools in the fall. (Note: students have learned not to count on waitlists – see this data which provides good perspective on how few students ever get admitted off the waitlist.)
Is the most recent change in focus for Gap Year students a sign of things to come in higher ed? Perhaps. One thing we can say with confidence is that the steep and ongoing decline in acceptance rates at selective colleges is almost certainly going to increase the number of students taking a Gap Year.
A Gap Year really is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity! Contact us today to learn more about how Gap Year Solutions works with students to help them get on their own path.
History of the Gap Year, Part 1: click here
History of the Gap Year, Part 2: click here