The numbers are in and Gap Years are up

The data is in – more students are opting for Gap Years this year. While this may come as no surprise due to the uncertainty that COVID has presented higher education, it is interesting to see the numbers. In a normal year, for example, 7% of Harvard’s first-year students defer their admission. This year, 21% of Harvard’s incoming students deferred to take a Gap Year.   

Although Harvard doesn’t reflect the entire higher education pool, it is a good place to start. We are also seeing it elsewhere – while we don’t know how many Stanford students normally take a Gap Year, this year it is 22%. Bates College is at 10% compared to 4% last year. MIT is up to 8% from 1% previously. 15% of Williams College first years deferred this year, compared to 5%. UPenn has seen its number go from 50 to 200.

Overall college enrollment statistics provide another data source to estimate Gap Years. Harvard’s first year class would have declined by 14% without its ability to fill spaces from its waitlist (which it undoubtedly did). Non-elite schools do not usually have the luxury of a deep waitlist to backfill for students who take Gap Years or for lower than expected yield. Author Jeff Selingo explained in a recent article that colleges in 42 states saw declines in their enrollment. The number of college first years declined 16% nationwide compared to last fall. Overall, we believe that the number of high school graduates electing to take a Gap Year has tripled to 7-8% this year.

While Gap Years were already growing in popularity, COVID is clearly behind this huge jump. Students, especially incoming first years, have been seeking alternatives to online classes. While many college students became accustomed to the online environment and decided to continue with their education online this fall, incoming students were hesitant to start their college experiences remotely. (Although a larger number of current college students also elected to take a Gap semester as well.)

While taking a Gap Year is in the best interest of many of this year’s high school graduates, it may affect the high school senior class of 2021. A recent article in the Boston Globe suggests that the increasing number of deferrals this year will have a ripple effect as there will be fewer spots for next year’s new first year class. Selingo says that “On many campuses, the loss of so many first-time students this fall will mean a smaller sophomore class next fall. As a result, many colleges will look to make up that shortfall with a larger-than-usual freshman class next year.” (We’re not sure we agree with this – we’ll cover in a future post.)

COVID has presented an opportunity for innovation and growth in the Gap Year industry. There are more domestic programs running, virtual and remote options for gappers, and new factors students are considering as they make decisions surrounding their learning paths. While we cannot predict if this upward trend of Gap Years will continue or revert to prior levels, we know that COVID isn’t going away just yet. As Michael Horn points out in a recent article, “Even in a pandemic or recession, there are plenty of opportunities [for students] to invest in themselves to build a sense of purpose and how they can contribute during these challenging times.” We fully agree with this!

To learn more about the many benefits of Gap Years and how to structure a transformative experience when international travel is not a realistic option, join Katherine Stievater, Founder of Gap Year Solutions, for an upcoming webinar. Click here for upcoming dates and registration information.

Photo: Williams College

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