The ‘Gap Year’ Might Be Good for Young People—But It Will Cost Families

White Squall

I don’t know about you, but when I graduated from a rural high school in 2000, the “gap year” wasn’t a thing. I think I started hearing about it when I graduated from college in 2004, in the “if your student isn’t quite ready for college yet, consider taking a gap year” sense.

Now it’s a thing. It is Harvard-sanctioned. And, as the NYT reports, it’ll cost you: “funding a gap year can feel like a barrier for many families — some programs can cost the equivalent of a year’s tuition.”

Wait wait wait wait wait. Programs? When did the gap year become about signing up with a program? I thought the gap year was about letting an overstressed adolescent chill out for a little bit while simultaneously working an entry-level retail job, to give them the chance to relax, mature, and start thinking about what they want from a college education.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, Arizona State University professor and author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, tells the NYT that my interpretation of the gap year is a terrible idea:

“Students who delay college to work odd jobs for a while to try to ‘find themselves’ don’t do as well as everyone else when they get to college,” he writes. “They get lower grades, and there’s a greater chance they will drop out.”

The ideal gap year needs to be “meaningful”—and it can only be a particular kind of meaningful. When I search “gap year programs” I get stuff like Sea|Mester, which charges $10,870 for a 40-day trip from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, or Where There Be Dragons, which charges $14,055 for a three-month program called Visions of India, described as follows:

Immerse yourself in the rich fabric of Indian life: trek through the Himalayas, meditate beneath the Bodhi tree, deconstruct the term ‘caste’, and become part of another family.

I want to deconstruct that paragraph, but I don’t have time. Trust me: at least some of those gap year kids are going to feel really embarrassed later on.

But back to the idea of meaning. The more I hear the word “meaningful,” the more I want to substitute it with “middle class,” as follows:

To increase their investment in the gap year experience, some students can find meaningful work experience, perhaps working as a nanny or as a language instructor overseas.

Working as a nanny overseas is meaningful. Working as a babysitter in your hometown is not. It has to be the kind of job where you are happy to get paid but also don’t really need the work; you’re just nannying or teaching English so you can learn more about life in Amsterdam or Tokyo.

Also, I love the NYT’s double meaning in “increase their investment.” Students will be more inclined to get up on time (and be ready to receive all that meaning) if they have to teach a Beginning English class. Students will also be able to invest a little of their own cash into their gap year, instead of spending the year living off their parents’ money.

Even if parents end up footing all or most of the bill, though, Mr. Selingo argues that it’s worth it. At most public universities, fewer than 20 percent of students graduate in four years. Many students take six years to finish a degree, or never finish at all. An investment in a gap year, he writes, “might be money saved later if students are more directed when they eventually go to college.”

It’s about meaning, but it’s also about the bottom line. Which is probably the most middle-class aspect of the whole thing.