As COVID-19 shutters physical campuses nationwide, today’s high school and college students are experiencing their generation’s crucible.

With uncertainty about whether college campuses will open in the fall and the finances of many families and colleges in tatters, significant numbers of students are looking at changing their college plans by taking a year off or attending college closer to home. In one national survey conducted in March, only 20% said they are confident they will still be able to attend their first-choice school. Roughly 12% of students said they are now considering taking a gap year or enrolling part-time. 

As students reconsider their college choices and see their first-choice dreams dashed by the inability to pay or enroll, they should reframe a gap year or part-time enrollment not as a year off, but as a year of purpose. Rather than see it as a step backward, it’s an opportunity to take a “discovery year” to learn about themselves—what are their passions and interests, what do they dislike, what drives them, what is their purpose, and how can they best contribute to the world?

Nearly 20 years ago, I was a senior in college on 9/11. Before then, I didn’t have a strong sense of what I would do after graduation. The events of that day led me to take a step back from campus recruiting and focus on how I could best make an impact on society, which resulted ultimately in a life spent seeking to improve schooling so that all individuals can fulfill their human potential.

Spurred by 9/11, many in my generation have similarly sought to change the world. Just as Pearl Harbor spawned the “Greatest Generation” and President John F. Kennedy inspired individuals to enter public service, historic events can shape and inspire the courage and convictions of a cohort.

Framed in this way, students have a chance to use the pause in their plans to catapult ahead.

This would be a prudent move even in ordinary times. Research we conducted for the book Choosing College revealed that far too many students attend college or university without a real sense of why they are enrolling.

Those students who enroll without an intrinsic passion and purpose for being there in the first place do poorly. That contributes to the nation’s dismal college completion statistics, in which 40% of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate from four-year programs within six years.

Research suggests the power of taking an intentional gap year before attending college. One study from Middlebury, for example, indicates that students who take a year off do better even after controlling for demographics, test scores, and entering grades. For decades, institutions like Harvard University have encouraged its admitted students to take a year off before enrolling.

Doing so allows students to embark on a series of new experiences and have the time to reflect. That, in turn, allows them to learn about who they are, which creates a stronger on-ramp into college and career. 

For more than 10 years Abby Falik, a social entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, has been a leading voice in the movement to re-imagine the gap year as a launchpad to a meaningful life.

“Today’s kids have been running on a treadmill of achievement—and most are scared to adjust the speed or the incline,” she said. “High school has become a high-stakes game to get to college, and more young people get to campus burnt out than with burning questions that will shape their education and life beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a historic opportunity for a generation of young people to develop a clear sense of purpose before setting foot on a college campus.”

Thoughtfully designed programs, like Global Citizen Year, offer enormous value for students through leadership training, global immersion, an apprenticeship, and mentors, along with dedicated time to reflect. For students unsure what they want to study or do—normal for an 18-year old—those experiences build awareness of what they like and don’t like to do, what career opportunities exist outside of school, and how they can contribute. That, in turn, helps them frame a clear set of questions or unknowns to answer when they do enroll in school and create a plan.

“Societies and religions alike have long recognized the power of a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood,” Falik said. “We know that when it’s done deliberately, this transition can be a transformation. When our Global Citizen Year alumni get to college they may not have a detailed map for their lives, but they all have a compass.” 

One question in an age of physical distancing is what should a gap year look like if students are homebound?

Falik suggests students will need curriculum, coaches, and community as a starting point.

If people are homebound, that means online courses will be critical. There are many solutions that can fill this need—from formal offerings from universities like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University to informal ones from companies like Coursera and Udemy.

Similarly, there are numerous online platforms to cultivate connections and coaching and allow students to benefit from mentors. 

To create community, students can, of course, use social media tools, but innovators should also create online communities capable of serving diverse learners—both local and global—with different backgrounds and perspectives in the world. 

On top of that, our research suggests that students will need real-world experiences and projects. Given that teen participation in the workforce was at its lowest level in our nation’s history before COVID-19, students are in desperate need of curated experiences so they can learn what pathways are out there and what resonates with them. Companies like Riipen and Parker Dewey that cultivate online internships could be critical here. But students could also take jobs on the front lines in their communities helping to care for those who need the most support—from the ill in hospitals to the elderly in nursing homes—or volunteer online to provide social support to members of society in need.

Entrepreneurs and established organizations in the private and public sectors should seize this opportunity to curate these experiences and make them affordable and accessible so many students seeking other options besides college can benefit. 


Although thousands of students who will be taking a gap year this coming fall did not plan for it and may not even want it, if they can embark on the year with a sense of purpose to discover their passions, with a shared experience behind them, their generation will be poised to contribute, lead, and improve society.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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