Should Kids Take a Gap Year Before College?

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Sounds nice, doesn’t it? You’re 18. Just finished high school. Now, instead of heading to college to hit the books again, you travel, meet new people, and learn more about yourself.

So why would parents oppose this?

The “gap year” is an increasingly popular choice for American high schools – a year of work, study and play between high school and college. The most famous high school senior in the U.S., Malia Obama, announced last Sunday that she’s taking a gap year before heading to Harvard in 2017. Equally trendy is a “post graduate” or PG year, where a promising athlete or a kid who needs more maturity and exposure to colleges attends a different high school for a year to increase his or her college acceptances. These “alternatives” have long been common in other parts of the world for years, but their popularity has increased dramatically in the US in the last decade.

But still, some of us parents fret. Extreme worrying is part of our job, and we’ve gotten very good at it. The main concerns: Will kids veer off track? Become unfocused? Waste a year of their lives?

The evidence seems to be no. Studies show that gap kids perform better academically once they get to college, they end up in more satisfying careers, and they are both more mature and less prone to destructive behaviors like binge drinking at college. So we parents should actually feel good if one of our kids wants to take some time off. And as adults, we know all too well how rare a year of free time is over the course of one’s life.

So here’s the key, once you’ve gotten used to the idea. Guide your child to do three important things: set goals for the year, make definite plans, and set up a structure to give the year meaning and substance. Many kids find that dividing the year into thirds make sense: a third working for money to fund the gap year, a third volunteering, and a third traveling.

Now the last concern: how to finance what feels to many parents like a great luxury. Gap year programs, especially those involving international travel, can be expensive, with a year-long international immersion program running as much or more as a year at a private college. But gap years don’t have to break a parent’s bank; many parents, (and teenagers) see a greater sense of financial responsibility and independence as a key benefit to a year off. Many gap year goals involve exploring a mission or passion that couldn’t be explored in high school, and this doesn’t have to cost a lot of dough. It just takes time. Which is what a gap year is all about.

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