If you are a millennial, you likely applauded the decision by Malia Obama, the President’s oldest daughter, to defer her attendance to Harvard University until 2017 following her “gap year.”
A growing number of young adults are opting to put their education on hold while they pursue personal interests, internships or humanitarian projects, a concept that has long been embraced in European culture.
USA Gap Year Fairs, a national circuit that promotes both domestic and international programs to college students, reports a 300 percent increase over the past five years in the number of students who attended their fairs. More than 5,000 showed up this year alone.
“Gap years are for students who embrace experiential learning,” said Alia Pialtos in an interview, direct of USA Gap Year Fairs, which is run by Dynamy, a residential internship programs based in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It gives them time to better understand themselves.”
Students who take gap years, she adds, are statistically more likely to finish their degree in four years.
“They often come back with a better understanding of what they want to study and pursue as a career and are generally better prepared to take on life’s responsibilities,” said Pialtos.
Yet, the decision to delay one’s college degree does not come cheap.
While some programs, like Visitoz, Global Citizen Year and City Year, offer modest salaries or scholarship eligibility, many do not. And some cost the equivalent of a full-year tuition. (Calculator: College Costs)
Programs that require students to incur significant debt are best left to students who can afford it, said Bob Wander in an interview, a certified financial planner with Wander Financial Services in New York City.
“It’s not the best idea to do a gap year that will contribute to your future college debt,” he said, noting it is possible a small amount of debt incurred could be justified if students gain a skill set that is relevant to their future career and ultimately renders them more employable.
Wander said, too, that taking a year off also gives parents and students additional time to save for tuition costs, which helps to minimize future debt.
Those of limited means, however, should pursue a program with at least some form of compensation, or a volunteer opportunity that covers living expenses.
They should also crunch the numbers so the understand the true cost of putting their education on hold, said Elaine King, a certified financial planner in Miami, Florida, in an interview.
“Consider not just the cost of the gap year program, plus living expenses that year, but the opportunity cost of entering the labor force a year late,” she said, noting she is in favor of finishing school as quickly as possible. “Whatever your first year salary would be, that’s the amount of money you are giving up.”
Students who are considering a gap year should also do some serious soul searching, said King.
“Really explore why you want to do this,” she said. “If it’s to change the world, you can accomplish that better with a college education. Go into a program that lets you help solve world hunger. You can really focus on making a bigger impact on the world by getting a degree and going at it with a roadmap as opposed to going solo.”
If the answer is because you aren’t yet sure what you want to study, consider working instead and living at home, while you save for future tuition.
Indeed, the decision to take a gap year requires careful consideration and a financial plan.
Pialtos recommends students check with the school they plan to attend to determine whether they allow for gap year deference, and whether they will roll over any scholarships or financial aid they may receive.
“Some colleges will and some won’t,” said Pialtos, noting schools and towns may also offer scholarships and financial aid for full-time volunteers. “It’s all done on a case-by-case basis so you want to do your homework.”
Hey, it’s worth a try.