There’s been a lot of talk about gap years recently. Many people think that they’re the solution to a problem that’s only going to get worse and worse as colleges get larger and larger: there are many students who simply aren’t prepared to be successful as undergraduates at the age of 18. Some people, either from their genes or from their upbringing, seem predisposed to seeing the worth in school, never questioning whether or not they’re wasting their time by spending four years in college focusing on class. But this isn’t true for many students. Some need more perspective before they realize the worth of a four-year degree.
It is this kind of student that benefits from gap year programs the most. Without a gap year, these students would struggle during school. They would become frustrated because they don’t inherently see the value of the schoolwork they’re doing. Kyle DeNuccio was this kind of student, he wrote for the New York Times, and he thinks that a gap year helped motivate him to finish his degree. By working a series of undesirable jobs and supporting himself financially on very little means, he realized why schooling is important, and he became motivated to finish his degree while pursuing something he loved to do, leading to him getting a job as an editor at a sports magazine, combining his loves of English and surfing.
I don’t think, however, that gap years are for everyone. I’m concerned that many kids who take a gap year may lose any enthusiasm for returning to school. DeNuccio was lucky, in some ways, to have a relatively grueling gap year, because it motivated him to return to school, but my fear is that many people who take gap years will fill them with fun activities, won’t support themselves financially, and won’t be focused on using the experience as a way to improve their future careers.
I’ve written before on this blog about the perils of directing kids toward vocations rather than toward liberal arts schools, and this is a similar issue from my perspective. For some kids, gap years are a legitimately fruitful exercise that will allow them to lead lives more in keeping with how they’d like to live, and a gap year will help them reach a level of self-actualization that may not otherwise be possible. For many other kids, however, a gap year can be an excuse for not achieving as much as other kids, and, by the end of the year, they may be even more dissuaded from a four-year degree as ever.
Ultimately, kids themselves will have to evaluate their reasons for wanting to take a gap year in order to decide whether or not it will be a useful activity for them. While I don’t think gap years are harmful if done “the right way,” it’s difficult to say exactly what the right way looks like for any given person. What’s most important to me is that every child has the best opportunity possible. Gap years are a tool to help some children do that, but they should be used with caution.