3 Reasons Why Your Kid Should Take a Gap Year

Monochrome view of Eiffel tower and bridge with selective colorization
Monochrome view of Eiffel tower and bridge with selective colorization

A few weeks ago, proud papa, President Barrack Obama, announced his daughter Malia had been accepted by Harvard (Like many families in a similar situation, I’d guess the Obamas sat on pins and needles waiting for a personal call from the school giving them the good news). While Malia’s acceptance to Harvard was a noteworthy sound bite, it was eclipsed by the related story: Malia plans to take a “gap year” before starting classes in the fall of 2017.

The concept of gap year originated with 17th century Britain royals and became a common practice with British elites by the middle of the 20th century. During the gap year, the prospective college student was encouraged to travel throughout Europe or Asia in order to experience historic landmarks and great museums. Or, get piss-faced stoned while contemplating one’s life purpose in an Amsterdam brothel.

As an (aspiring) elite growing up outside Pittsburgh, I took a “gap summer” before my freshmen year at Penn State. Unfortunately, my busy gap schedule did not permit outings to historic landmarks or iconic museums. I did, however, spend many 10-hour days making cardboard boxes for a now defunct company called St. Joe Paper Factory. Several times that summer, over tea with mother and father on the veranda of our estate, several blocks away from the factory, I delicately raised the possibility of modifying my gap experience. I suggested that Paris and several months of intensive study at The Sorbonne, might allow me to reflect more deeply as to my greater life purpose. They listened with rapt attention, but maintained my life purpose, as well as the all of my tuition, would be better served by continuing my gap experience at St. Joe Paper Company. As is the case with reasonable people, we were able to reach a compromise. I completed my gap summer at St. Joe Paper Company; they agreed to continue on in the role of my parents.

While taking a gap year is common for students in much of the developed world, it is not the case here. Currently, less than 3% of U.S. college enrollees take a gap year. That’s sure to change now that TMZ, Inside Addition and Entertainment Tonight will be tracking Malia Obama’s every gap year activity. Of course, in fine American tradition, there are now gap year associations, gap year trade shows, gap year conferences and, yes, gap year apps. Search “gap year books” on Amazon and you’ll get more than 25,000 results. I’m guessing we aren’t too far removed from the grand opening of a new clothing retailer dedicated to the phenomenon: GAP GAP!

Should you encourage your teen to take a gap year? Absolutely, and here are three reasons why:

  1. It gives them a year (or more) to consider if college is, in fact, right for them. During this period, they can contemplate on the fact that about 25% of college graduates have jobs in their field of study. That is a staggering statistic, especially when considering the amount of debt these students (and parents) are taking on.
  2. It gives them a year (or more) to make money to offset the debt they will incur while gaining a degree for which there is little demand in the workplace. Seriously, even if they offset a year of tuition, it’s better than digging a hole, especially considering that a third them will drop out after freshman year.
  3. It gives them another year (or two) to mature. I was clueless when I entered freshman year of school, which might explain why I barely managed to stay enrolled. The difference was, I was only paying $300 tuition each semester, so screwing up a few semesters wasn’t going to break the bank.

I’m glad Malia decided to take a gap year, even if she didn’t consult me first. It will shed an important light on an idea worth considering for many families. In the long run, a college degree pays better dividends. But it’s still not the answer for every kid, so why not figure that out before the bills start to add