The Danish Gap Year

Jonathan Kyed is 21 years old and on his second Gap Year. He’s also from Denmark, where a remarkable 80%+ of students take a Gap Year after high school. I had an opportunity to speak with Jonathan as part of a documentary he’s creating to explain why so few Americans take Gap Years, and how it works to travel with a friend, without family, and with taking personal responsibility for the ”ups and downs”. Ultimately, his goal is to inspire more Americans to take a Gap Year!

This post will introduce you to Jonathan, his experience, and why nearly everyone in Denmark takes a Gap Year. A future post will link to his documentary and summarize what he found while traveling across the U.S. and compare to the Danish Gap Year.

Quick note: we recommend using the Chrome browser to open any of the Danish web sites linked here. Chrome automatically offers a “translate to English” option. 

The Danish Gap Year

In Denmark, most students do not go straight from what is called “upper secondary” school (equivalent to U.S. high school) to university. Jonathan shared a link to a study from Denmark’s Evaluation Institute (EVA) which showed that 86% of the students who started their education in 2018 had one or more “sabbatical years” beforehand (what they call a Gap Year). A check of other sources (here and here) shows different numbers, but in all cases they show 75% or more Danish students taking at least one year off before college. 

During their sabbatical year, Danish students do so many different types of things, but mostly it comes down to travel and work (to pay for travel and other activities, including the Højskole schools – see below). Jonathan said he knows some people that mostly just work and mix in a few other activities, or just work and save up money for study. “They use that free-time to relax, do hobbies, meet friends, to figure out what the next step of life is.”

Jonathan’s Story

Jonathan took his first Gap Year right after upper secondary school. He did what a large number of Danes do in their Gap Year – he attended a Højskole school. In English, these are referred to as Folk High Schools. They are prevalent in the Nordic countries, as well as Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The Højskole concept began in the mid-1800s, and today there are more than 70 of them in Denmark. 

The Højskole schools offer students a chance to spend four or six months studying something which is of a particular interest to them. They choose their own subjects, and are not graded. If students are looking for help with mental health, and reducing anxiety, there are schools for this too. These are residential schools, and they welcome students from other countries to join students from Denmark. 

Jonathan’s school for his first Gap Year was Odder Højskole, where he focused on arts-based classes and subjects (drawing, storytelling, film production, acting, sports, yoga). 

His goal is ultimately to get into a film production program after university. On his second Gap Year, he spent time traveling through the U.S. with a friend. Because he is curious why so few students in the U.S. take Gap Years compared to Europe and Denmark, and he couldn’t find any documentation about why more U.S. students don’t take Gap Years, he set out to interview Americans about this topic. Now he is back in Denmark at university studying media science. In his spare time, he is producing a documentary on what he found in his U.S. travels on the relatively low level of U.S. interest in Gap Years.  The documentary will also cover the whole experience of traveling with a friend.

Why Do So Many Danes Take a Gap Year?

According to Jonathan, a number of factors impact such a high percentage of Danish Gap Years:

  • In Denmark, education is free. The government also gives students a $500-870 monthly stipend for food and their apartment. There is no juggling of financial or merit aid or scholarships and none of that drives the timing of college. According to Jonathan, “I know that sounds surprising, but we do get around that amount of money every month for studying. Then we can pay for rent and food while becoming smarter versions of ourselves.”
  • He describes Danes as a “chill people”. There isn’t a big rush to head off to college. It’s better to learn more about your interests, and know what to study before going off to university.
  • Many students taking a Gap Year attend the Højskole schools. There are many of these schools, which are independent from the government. The cost for classes, room and board is about USD $4000-5000 for six months, which depends on the facilities, exact length of stay, etc.
  • Parents are highly encouraging of the sabbatical year.
  • Since so many students take this time before university, there is no stigma and no FOMO about Gap Years. It is completely normalized and expected.

This still doesn’t explain the low percentage of U.S. students taking Gap Years, but it gives some clues. We are looking forward to learning more from what Jonathan found during his U.S. travels, and will post the link when his first documentary episode is ready.

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