With COVID-19 leading many colleges to create novel arrangements for schooling in the fall, students are reportedly considering taking gap years at record rates.

Many, including me, have encouraged the practice—not just during the current time, but more generally—as an important step for students to discover their passions, purpose, and how they can contribute in the world so that they enter college with a clear sense of why they are enrolled, which will boost their odds of success.

Others have pushed back. They observe that gap years are something for the privileged and argue that they are a terrible idea for low-income students.

I agree that the stereotypical gap year in the minds of many Americans—a bunch of 18-year olds gallivanting around Europe—is an experience reserved for the privileged. It’s not one to emulate.

But as Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, said recently on a webinar we did together for Kaplan’s new Boost Year program, “It’s only privileged if we think about [the gap-year experience] the way we’ve traditionally thought of it.”

That’s exactly right.

When I’m referring to a “gap year”—a term that should be rephrased as “discovery year” or “purpose year” to say more accurately what I mean—I’m not talking about that meandering experience, nor, for the purposes of this conversation, about adult learners, who comprise a significant swath of higher education.

I am discussing experiences for the 18- to 22-year-old student. And this year ought to be a series of experiences in which students learn about themselves—what they like and don’t like, their strengths, their purpose, and what pathways are possible. They should partake in active experiences, such as last-mile training programs, internships and externships, apprenticeships, paid work, experiential-learning opportunities, short courses, or community service. At each juncture, they should reflect to clarify what they do not like and start to figure out what they do. 

This understanding begins to tackle another set of the objections to gap years: affordability. Many suggest that because gap years often contain a travel component, they will be prohibitively expensive. That can undoubtedly be true.

But college is often not affordable either. Even for lower-income students who should receive significant financial aid, it’s hard to know ahead of time how much they might pay for college. The New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, studied 479 private colleges. It found that a whopping 61% of them were charging $15,000 or more per year to students from families with incomes of $30,000 or less, even after taking into account all federal, state, and institutional aid the students received. Students who attend more affordable public options still incur significant expenses on top of the aid they receive, even when tuition is free.

Critical to my conception of an effective discovery year is that the student ought to be able to earn money through the experience so that it is more affordable than choosing college. Holding a series of jobs, of course, shouldn’t just be to earn money, but also to accumulate experience, knowledge, social capital, awareness of one’s strengths, passions, purpose and potential pathways forward—many of which can be difficult to do in a traditional college structure.

Curated gap-year programs can also offer affordable pathways for students. Kaplan’s Boost Year, for example, costs $4,995 for the 14 weeks with financial aid available. The program takes 20 hours a week, which leaves time for students to earn money. Other curated gap-year programs also offer need-based scholarships. What’s more, there are a number of structural innovations that could help make a discovery-year experience even more accessible, such as partnering with colleges and universities to offer the programs with need-based financial aid and so that the experiences could count for credit.

This bleeds into the last set of objections many raise, which is the limited data around gap years.

In Choosing College, we observed that despite the research that shows the benefits of a gap year when controlled for demographics, grades, test scores and the like, other research suggests that low-income students who take time off may struggle to get back onto a college track for a variety of reasons. Abby Falik, CEO of Global Citizen Year, which offers a gap-year program, wrote recently that this negative data is outdated, and her organization’s data shows the positive benefits for students who defer college with purpose and a plan.

My conclusion is that students who take a gap year must have a clear plan in place that is time-bound. In the absence of guardrails, it’s easy for a gap year in a low-wage job with limited pathways to stretch on without end, which means that bounding the year of discovery is critical, particularly when students are deferring for financial or family reasons. This is why affordable, curated gap-year programs with opportunities to earn money are critical.

Others observe that by taking a gap year, students are delaying the benefits that come with a college degree, which will hurt them financially in a loss of earnings over their lifetimes. They argue that no one should take a gap year. That’s true if we assume the counterfactual is successfully earning a degree—and that we all will adhere to the average.

But here’s some more data that impacts the conversation.

Over 40% of first-time, full-time students who started college in the fall of 2012 failed to graduate from four-year programs within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Students who are in the top income quartile are more likely to graduate—the rate is 62%, but the graduation rate for individuals in the bottom income quartile is a catastrophic 13%.

Non-completers not only lose out on the benefits of a college degree, but also face increased debt without a big bump in earnings. They unsurprisingly have a three-fold higher risk of default than completers, according to the Center for American Progress.

Why the high dropout rate? There are many reasons, but in researching Choosing College we learned that a significant number of students from all backgrounds enroll in college to do what’s expected of them or to help them get away from a bad circumstance in their lives. In other words, they are motivated by external factors, not internal goals. They choose college because it is a socially acceptable answer to what they are doing next.

Students who attend college for extrinsic reasons suffer poor outcomes. According to our research, students who enrolled in college because they felt it was expected of them ended up dropping out or transferring 74% of the time. Of those who went to college “to get away,” over half had left the school they were attending without a degree at the time we talked to them.

In a world of low college tuition and low opportunity cost, that might be acceptable, but that is not today’s world. Too many students go to college not knowing what they want to get out of it or how to make it work for them. Committing to a four- or even two-year school and taking on lots of debt when they lack passion and focus for the endeavor is risky—and expensive.

Here’s where we need innovation. Colleges shouldn’t just wait for gap-year programs to approach them to partner. They ought to take the lead in finding partners and offer financial aid as well as credit for the experiences and demonstrated learning that students accumulate. This is in their interests because it can help students come to college with greater clarity and purpose and thus be more likely to graduate.

They could alternatively re-conceptualize the first-year experience as a series of immersive sprints through different fields instead of a set of general education courses. Degree of Freedom, a new college that recently purchased Marlboro College campus in Vermont, appears to be applying this type of thinking: it will offer dedicated apprenticeships in which students can learn about themselves and different career trajectories so they can build purpose and passion—and not “waste time pursuing majors or courses that will lead them to a job they wouldn’t enjoy.” Champlain College is offering a “Virtual Gap Program,” a semester-long “journey into academic college life, holistic well-being, and finding meaning through virtual internship and service experiences.”

The ultimate point is not that all students should take a gap year. Just that many more need a year of discovery. We need pathways for them to do so such that all students—regardless of background—can participate. Many of these exist already—even amidst these economically challenged times.

But yes, we need more. Reserving lives of purpose for the privileged short changes far too many individuals who need that opportunity of discovery.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.