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High School Grads: Start College in Fall 2021 or Take a Gap Year?

Not every high school graduate should immediately trot off to college, racking up student loans or asking their parents to foot a five-figure tuition bill. During the 2020-2021 school year, private colleges charged an average of $37,200 in tuition and fees, according to EducationData.org. That doesn’t include room and board, which added another $12,682 on average.

Some high school seniors and graduates need time to mull over their career goals. The wisest start thinking now about lifestyle design: drawing up a personalized road map to create your own unique perfect life.

Before committing to a traditional four-year college program, consider taking a gap year if you don’t yet know what direction you want your life to take.

Common Gap Year Options

Gap years not only buy you time to consider what you want to do with your life, but they can also help you grow as a person, develop networking contacts, and expose you to careers and cultures you never knew existed.

And, of course, earn money!

The Travel Gap Year

Historically, many students take a gap year to travel. It can help young adults develop perspective and maturity when they can see the world on their own and expose themselves to other cultures.

Many high school grads volunteer abroad, pushing them outside the bubble of their American lifestyle they’ve experienced to date. These volunteers encounter true poverty face-to-face and actively work to help those in need. Among the many reasons to volunteer, it can help young people to grow and to acknowledge a world bigger than themselves.

Even if you don’t volunteer, traveling the world inherently expands your horizons. The more you see of the world, the better you come to understand your own culture, yourself, and where you might fit among the world’s many moving parts.

It wasn’t until I moved abroad in my mid-30s that I finally discovered what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve lived in four countries and visited 40, and although it hasn’t made me smarter, it has certainly made me wiser.

Travel also helps you generate ideas for businesses. You stumble across business models that no one is currently using in your home city, alternative ways of solving universal problems, or simply a new application of an old service or product.

The novel and creative ideas you find across the world can inspire you to start a business, even if only a side hustle, while you work your way through school after returning from your gap year.

And you don’t need to come from a wealthy family to spend a gap year traveling. You can do that old-fashioned thing called “work” to pay your way, and many international volunteer programs provide for your travel, housing, and food expenses.

The Working Gap Year

Not everyone spends their gap year backpacking across Asia or volunteering in developing countries. Some students take a year to work in the hope that firsthand experience can help them choose the right career path or simply earn more money to cover expensive tuition.

Like travel, working for a year can do wonders for helping young adults find direction. But it hinges on one central requirement: the ability to actually find work.

It helps if you or your parents have an extensive professional network. If you know enough people, one of them can probably secure you an entry-level job in a field that interests you. Lean on your parents’ professional networks — it doesn’t diminish you in any way to play the cards you’ve been dealt.

You may also gain insights by taking unpaid internships in a field that interests you. If you take that path, just make sure you can cover your expenses through a part-time job or side gig, or some other means such as accommodating parents.

Alternatively, students can take a gap year to volunteer locally. It may not offer the career insights they hoped to gain, but it can prove gratifying in other ways. Brainstorm ways to volunteer and give back to your community if you want to take a year off college but can’t find work or travel.


Why Consider a Gap Year?

Gap years come with a host of advantages. In fact, many four-year colleges now actively encourage enrolled students to take a gap year rather than plowing right into the fall semester. And some higher education experts go so far as to argue that universities should require a gap year.

If you sit on the fence about taking a gap year, consider the following reasons to take a little time before plowing forward in your formal education.

1. You Feel Like You Don’t Know Who You Are

“Know thyself.” This first of the three maxims carved into the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi still rings true two and a half millennia later.

For the first 18 years of your life, you don’t get to make many meaningful decisions. Your parents largely decide where you live, where you go to school, what you eat, and so forth. Then you graduate high school and get turned loose into the world, and suddenly you have to make every decision — decisions that actually determine the rest of your life.

A gap year can help you get to know yourself better so that you can make better decisions to sculpt your future life. That includes not just what you want to do for a living (more on that momentarily), but also where you want to live, what kind of impact you want to have on the world, the kind of lifestyle you want to live.

Getting outside of the bubble of your childhood exposes you to infinitely more ideas, lifestyles, career choices, cultures, and options for how to live, so you can make an informed decision.

It’s why young Amish and Mennonites leave their community for a period of Rumspringa — so they can make a meaningful decision about the life they want. Without seeing how the rest of the world lives, you just slip by default into the same lifestyle your parents lived, leading to years of vague dissatisfaction and wondering what else lies over the horizon.

If you don’t know yourself, you end up making poor decisions. But unlike the bad decisions of your high school years, your early adulthood decisions often determine your opportunities for decades to come.

2. You Don’t Know What Work You Want to Pursue

Growing up, you only ever hear about “traditional” careers, like farmers, firefighters, police officers, teachers, accountants, real estate agents.

How often did you hear about user experience (UX) design, search engine optimization (SEO) marketing, or API integration? Did anyone explain to you how day trading works, or how to invest in real estate to create passive income?

As a young adult, you simply don’t know how most of the billions of people in the world earn their living. You don’t know the options available to you. So you end up falling into a career mostly by accident and spending your 20s desperately trying to advance and show off how successful you are.

You wake up one day to realize that you don’t actually love your work but you’ve invested so much time advancing in it that you feel trapped by the decent salary and benefits.

Don’t fall into that trap. Go out and talk to as many people as you can about what they do for a living — not just the gleaming elevator pitch, but the day-to-day grind, what they’re doing at 11:17 on a Tuesday morning. Talk to your friends’ parents, your parents’ friends, and everyone else who will spare you 15 minutes to explain what they actually do.

Some six-figure careers don’t require a college degree. Some careers require a Ph.D. and pay modest salaries. If you discover your ideal career doesn’t require a degree, perhaps you can save yourself four years of stress and student loans and start climbing the ladder today.

Alternatively, you may discover you want a career — such as becoming a doctor — that requires a specific major and coursework from the first semester of college. Either way, it helps to know what you want to do before you start college.

3. You’re Burnt Out on School and Feel No Motivation

Sometimes high performers get burnt out. If you feel like you’ve been pushing-pushing-pushing as hard as you possibly could for 18 years, and the thought of one more textbook turns your stomach, you might need a year out of academia before you can give it your all.

Your never-satisfied parents may or may not understand, and it doesn’t matter. They don’t have to understand, because you’re an adult, and you need to make the best possible decision for yourself.

You gain nothing by charging headfirst into college without actually wanting to be there, then flaming out two semesters later.

That doesn’t mean you should use burnout as an excuse to go party in Europe for a year. But if the thought of going off to college immediately makes you feel exhausted rather than energized, take a year off to grow.

4. You Feel an Urgent Need to See the World

Amsterdam will still be there in five years, and I can assure you it will still be expensive.

Still, some young people feel a burning, immediate need to get out of their bubble and see the world. Not tomorrow, not next year, but right this moment.

If you can’t wait another day to get out and see the big bad world, a gap year spent volunteering or working abroad can help quell the fire. Just make sure you don’t extend your travels indefinitely. At some point, you need to make a decision about your future.

5. You Need More Money for College

It’s hard to do well in school when you don’t have a penny to your name.

Yes, student loans can cover tuition. However, you still need to pay for books, housing, food, transportation, and all the other costs to survive. Part-time jobs and side gigs help cover some of these expenses, as do summer jobs, but sometimes it helps to take a year to save up some real money for your college expenses.

With enough of a running start, you can minimize student loan debt and avoid an all-ramen diet for the next four years.

6. Other Perks: Skills, Giving Back, and More

Although you shouldn’t take a gap year only to learn a new language or skill, these do represent very real benefits from taking a gap year.

Take Seamester, for example. You not only get to spend a year traveling around the world, but you also learn skills like scuba diving, sailing, and navigation, in addition to earning college credits that many universities accept.

You can also give back and help truly needy populations by volunteering in your gap year. Although you can also volunteer during your college years, and of course afterward, it represents a very real potential benefit of taking a gap year.

Going hands-on to change the world at a young age often changes the direction of your life for the better.


The Risks of Taking a Gap Year

Not everyone makes a good candidate for taking a gap year. Gap years do come with a few risks and downsides, which you need to understand before committing.

1. Procrastination and The Risk of Never Going Back to School

Any time you find yourself saying “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to that eventually; I just want to do this one thing first…” you should pause for self-reflection. Procrastination rarely registers as procrastination in the moment — you always find some “logical” justification for it.

Traveling the world is a blast. Earning full-time income for the first time makes you feel rich. Both create a heady feeling that quickly becomes a lifestyle and one that gets harder to turn away from with each passing month.

The Gap Year Association says that 90% of students who take a gap year reenroll in college afterward. But that means 10% of them don’t.

I once hired as an assistant a young woman who was taking time off between high school and college. She quickly fell into the working lifestyle and grew accustomed to going out for meals, having money in her pocket, and not having to study through her nights and weekends.

One year turned into two, and long after she and I parted ways I bumped into her and learned she did eventually go to college, but as a part-time student who took a painstakingly long time to graduate.

She regretted not going immediately while she still had the mindset and lifestyle of a broke student.

2. Aimlessness and Wasted Time

There’s a difference between enrolling in a structured volunteer program like Americorps and wandering aimlessly around Europe for a year.

Get clear on your reasons for taking a gap year before committing. Then plan your gap year thoroughly, ideally going through a structured program. Otherwise, you risk losing momentum on your education for no good reason, and simply delaying your entry into the working world and your career.

3. Cost (If You Don’t Work)

My wife is a college counselor for international schools, and all too many of her students who express interest in a gap year simply want to travel the world on mom and dad’s dime.

Granted, some of that culpability lies with their indulgent parents. But as a freshly minted adult, you are now responsible for your own finances. You don’t have to go to college immediately, but whatever you do, you need to pay your own way.

Get a job, or volunteer through a structured program that provides housing, food, and transportation. To wander around spending money without working is a recipe for wasted time, money, and youth.

4. Isolation and Fear of Falling Behind

Watching all your friends go off to college can feel isolating. Your experience over the next year will be strikingly different from theirs, and at the end of that year, they’ll be a quarter of the way through college while you haven’t started.

When you do finally reach college, your gap year experience could leave you feeling detached from your younger, less experienced classmates. You can also find yourself rusty academically, having to re-ingrain good studying habits.

Even so, in the grand scheme of life, one year won’t put you behind the curve. Especially if you use that time to discover precisely what you want to do as a career, and potentially skip years of floundering in jobs that don’t quite fit you.


Questions to Decide Whether to Take a Gap Year

On the fence about taking a gap year?

Many high school graduates do, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and colleges’ mixed responses to it. Use the following questions as a guide to help you decide the best use of your next year.

Does My College Allow Me to Defer Enrollment by a Year?

Most college admissions offices allow you to defer your enrollment and start a year late. But not all do, so you need to know your school’s deferral policy and whether you can take a gap year without losing your slot.

Similarly, deferral for a year could endanger your scholarships or grants. In most cases, it doesn’t, but you need to double-check these details before jumping on a cruise ship for a year.

How Clear Am I on a Career?

As outlined above, some careers require a specific college major, while others require any four-year degree, and some don’t require a degree at all. If you truly have no idea what you want to do, it can help to take a year to figure it out, at least in a general sense.

You don’t necessarily need to know the exact field or niche, but a sense of direction will help you either get a useful degree or avoid the hassle altogether.

As a parting thought on attending college more broadly, a degree helps sort you into a higher career echelon. The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world who dropped out of college and became billionaires are few and far between.

Over the course of a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree is worth roughly $2.8 million in higher earnings according to a study by Georgetown University.

If Money Is My Concern, How Else Might I Raise It?

I would argue that raising money is one of the less compelling reasons to take a gap year. You have plenty of options to pay for college beyond taking a gap year.

Take out student loans. Work part-time jobs from home. Apply for so many scholarships and grants that they stack up and the combined financial aid covers most of your tuition.

Explore income sharing agreements with employers. Join the military’s ROTC program, which comes with the added benefit of a guaranteed job after graduation. Start with two years of community college before transferring to a four-year university.

The ideas go on and on. Don’t let money delay your education and the start of your post-college career.

What Kind of Work Would I Do If I Took a Gap Year?

Do you plan to volunteer? If so, where and how? If you plan to intern, where would you want to intern and why?

Research and write out a detailed plan for your gap year before you defer your enrollment. An aimless gap year spent wandering won’t help you “find yourself.” Without a plan, you might as well stumble your way through college — at least you’ll come out of it with a degree.

When in doubt, start with structured gap year programs. You can make a difference, travel, and gain hands-on experience and skills, all through a tried-and-true program that can help you with details like housing and transportation in addition to the work itself — details that prove doubly important when taking a gap year abroad.

How Will I Manage Logistics Like Health Insurance if I Travel Overseas?

I’ve lived overseas as an expat for more than five years now, and I love it. But it does come with a few extra complications, from a completely different health care system to foreign languages to finding housing and challenges finding work.

When you first move abroad, especially as a broke young person, it helps to go through an established program or employer. They can help you with these not-so-minor details like where you’ll sleep at night and what happens to you if you get sick.

Some colleges even offer their own structured gap year programs overseas. For instance, Princeton University’s Bridge Year program secures you housing with a host family and takes care of logistics like international health care, allowing you to focus on your volunteer work and learning a new language, culture, and skills.

If My Goal Is Travel, Would a Semester Abroad Make More Sense?

Travel can undoubtedly help you grow as a person. But you don’t need to take a gap year to travel the world.

Most colleges offer study abroad programs, where you can spend a semester or even longer at a partner school overseas. Some take it a step further. My alma mater, University of Delaware, offers a World Scholars program where you spend several semesters internationally over the course of your four-year college experience.

By traveling as part of your college experience, you don’t have to take a year off from school, and you still get a structured program with housing, health care, and other amenities provided for you.

And you can always travel the world for free or inexpensively after graduating too. In fact, some international volunteering programs like the Peace Corps require a college degree.


Final Word

If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, consider taking a gap year. Don’t expect it to be glamorous, jet-setting around the world and staying at five-star hotels, but you can gain valuable real-world experience and potentially do some good in the world by volunteering either at home or abroad.

Gap years should remain a means to the specific end: deciding what career you want to pursue and laying the foundation for that pursuit. Make a firm commitment to yourself that at the end of your gap year, you will either be enrolled in college or vocational training or actively working an entry-level position on your career track of choice.

G. Brian Davis
G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.

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