Gap-Year Culture

April 20, 2021

This past week it was announced that Malia Obama, eldest daughter of Barack and Michelle Obama, will be taking a “gap year” prior to entering Harvard University in the Fall of 2017. While this concept of a gap year – taking a year off between the end of high school and the beginning of college – may be anathema to older adults, it is a cultural and educational concept that has crossed two large oceans and is finally taking root in our culture.

The gap-year culture has long existed in both Britain and Australia. In its traditional form, the gap year describes the year after high school graduation and before beginning college. The concept is for the young person to travel, volunteer, work, or in some way shape or form expose themselves to a variety of meaningful life experiences that lie beyond his/her comfort zone. Historically, in the U.S., the focus for most students, particularly children of immigrants, has been to get a degree and/or make money. This is just another piece of our culture that Millennials are beginning to change.

According to the National Alumni Survey, 2015, gap-year enrollment between 2006 – 2015 increased by 220%. The top 5 reasons people take gap years include:

  1. Gain life experience and grow personally (92%)
  2. Travel and experience other cultures (85%)
  3. Break from academic track (82%)
  4. Explore study options (51%)
  5. Volunteer (48%)

There might be parents who fear that a gap year will be a “lost” year or a year that will not help their child in any way. The data would not support that concern. In a study done by Gog Clagett, former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, when controlling for academic rating of institution attended after the gap year and comparing the actual academic performance of students who took a gap year to those who did not, students who took a gap year almost always over performed academically in college. This high academic performance was sustained for all four years of college.

Previous studies of gap-year students have found that they:

  • Overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs
  • Apply a less-selfish approach when working with others
  • Have a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures and ways of living
  • Report overwhelmingly positive life-changing experiences
  • Adapt better to college life and beyond

A life experience in youth that can give young people greater, more positive personal experience beyond their comfort zone, provide personal growth, better academic performance over time, and greater adaptability during and after college? Maybe we should plan to bring the concept of a gap year into our culture writ large…

Keep cultivating your culture!

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