NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More Students Taking "Gap Year" Before College

December 30, 2010

College-admission letters are starting to roll in, but a growing number of students will decide instead to take a year off to try out potential careers or broaden their horizons.  Gap-year activities range from doing volunteer work or taking classes, to working for pay, traveling or tackling outdoor adventures.

There isn't a measure of the number of students who take gap years, but a recent survey of 300,000 first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities found 1.2 percent waited a year to enter college, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

More colleges and universities, such as Amherst College, Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are adopting formal policies allowing students to defer admission:

  • "Gap fairs" promoting various programs ( have multiplied fourfold in the past four years to 30 nationwide.
  • Students who don't make their own plans often sign up for organized programs. Positions may pay wages or provide scholarships, while others charge fees, some as high as $35,000.

Burnout from the competitive pressure of high school and a desire "to find out more about themselves," are the top two reasons students take gap years, according to a survey of 280 people who did so by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson of Advance, N.C., co-authors of a forthcoming guidebook on the topic.

Taking a gap year is also linked to higher motivation in college, according to an Australian study of 2,502 students published in August in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Other students lose direction after taking time off and don't enroll in college. While his research found that 90 percent of students who took a gap year had returned to college within a year, to guard against dropouts, Mr. Haigler advises having students apply and gain admission to college first, then ask to defer enrollment for a year. An estimated 5 percent of four-year colleges and universities have formal policies allowing students to defer admission, up sharply from a few years ago, says Linda DeAngelo, assistant research director for the Higher Education Research Institute.  Some programs pay a stipend and scholarships.

Source:  Sue Shellenbarger, "Delaying College to Fill in the Gaps," Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2010.

For text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues