Jacob Munch, who graduated from Louisville’s Monarch High School last month, described high school as “rough” thanks to his penchant for procrastinating.
He still earned close to a semester’s worth of college credit, completed the school’s High School of Business program and was accepted to multiple colleges.
But by May 1, College Decision Day , he still didn’t know which school he wanted to attend or what he wanted to study — and didn’t want to make an expensive mistake. So he decided not to decide, apply for deferred enrollment at the in-state schools where he was accepted and take a gap year to figure it out.
“I don’t have to make a decision until I have a bit of time to think through what I want to do,” he said. “I can take a break and get some real-world experience. I can acknowledge that I’m not ready for college, and that’s OK. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
This summer, he’s continuing an internship he started his senior year that involves helping run the sales management system for a local welding company. Depending on how it goes, he said, he will see if he can extend the internship or look for another one.
He also wants to to travel, including possibly taking a road trip on his own or with a friend to visit family in Texas.
“It’s a major transition from being the kid to being the adult,” he said. “I’m excited for this year. I can see what I like to do and what I don’t like to do before I jump in to college.”
High school graduates delaying college to work to save money isn’t new. But until recently, taking a structured gap year for travel, internships or service work before enrolling in higher education was mainly a European tradition.
While there aren’t solid numbers of how many U.S. students are taking a gap year with the intention of enrolling in college, the Gap Year Association has found increasing interest in the last decade based on gap year fair attendance.
Based on a survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 1.7 percent of the college freshmen in 2017 waited a year after high school graduation to enroll. The survey didn’t ask about the circumstances around the decision.
More than 3,000 colleges also are giving accepted students the option to defer their enrollment for a gap year, including most of Colorado’s colleges. And bringing more attention to the trend was the 2016 announcement by former President Barack Obama’s daughter, Malia, that she was taking a gap year before going to Harvard.
“It was saying ‘hey, the president’s daughter is doing this, it must be OK,’” said Marion Taylor, a gap year consultant based in Boulder. “It’s definitely on the upswing.”
She started her consulting service, Taylor the Gap, in 2010 after talking to high school and private college counselors about the need for a service to help students navigate gap year options. While most of her clients are in Colorado, she works with students from multiple western states.
The high cost of college, combined with more college students taking longer to graduate, is one of the big motivators she sees for taking a gap year.
“It’s better to go much more focused, much more mature, before starting college,” she said. “Students have a much better sense of what they want to study.”
A 2015 alumni survey by the Gap Year Association found that 90 percent of students who took a structured gap year went on to college — and did better once they were there than students who didn’t have that experience.
The top three reasons for taking a gap year, according to the survey, were to gain life experience, travel to experience other cultures and take a break from the academic track.
“Kids lives are so crazy busy during high school,” Taylor said. “A gap year allows some time to say ‘what are my passions?.’ It really helps them find their internal compass.”
Still earning college credit
Some colleges even have added a semester or a full-year of a gap program into their freshman year options, allowing students to have a gap-year experience while still earning college credit.
Locally, Boulder’s Naropa University offers a travel abroad “bridge year.” The program includes nine to 10 weeks of group travel in South Asia or Central America, nine to 12 weeks of an individual internship and three to four immersive retreats. Students who complete the program earn 30 college credits.
Mattea Beachy, who graduated from Nederland Middle/Senior High in May, enrolled in the Naropa program “to take time away from sitting in classrooms to figure out what I really want to do after high school.”
He said he liked that the program offers both travel opportunities and an internship, along with a year of college credit. For the internship, possibilities he’s considering include music festivals or marine biology.
“Music and being near the ocean with sea life are things that I love to do,” he said. “I am not really sure what I want to major in and that’s a huge reason why I chose this program. I also think it will be good to have classes and retreats with people who also aren’t sure what their path is going to be.”
As an alternative, some gap-year program providers have set up agreements with colleges to provide credit. Jacob Rona, a Niwot High School graduate, signed up for one of those programs, provided by the Denver-based Winterline company.
He said he decided on a gap year because he hadn’t done as well in high school as he would have liked and didn’t feel ready for college.
“High school for me wasn’t a great experience,” he said. “It was something that was just a burden.”
But what he does love is traveling and exploring other cultures. Winterline’s program takes students to 10 countries over nine months and includes an option to earn college credit.
He said he liked that the program includes a mix of travel and community service, plus an opportunity to learn practical skills, including cooking and money management. Highlights include building houses in the Caribbean, scuba diving in Costa Rica and learning about art in Europe.
“This was exactly what I was looking for, really experiencing something that not very many kids or adults experience,” he said.
After his gap year, he plans to enroll at Front Range Community College for a year, then transfer to a four-year program. His current top choices include the American University of Paris or the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study political science or business.
“The research really shows that a gap year, for students who don’t feel ready for college, really benefits them in the long term,” he said.
Gap year mapped out
Georgia Dauzvardis, who graduated in May from Lafayette’s Peak to Peak Charter School, developed a custom gap year based on her interests and goals.
She said her parents encouraged her to take a gap year because she entered kindergarten on the young side, with a birthday in September. Plus, she said, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and “school has always been really hard for me.”
“Being an adult kind of scares me,” she said. “A gap year will help me figure that out.”
Her plans start with Outward Bound’s Pathfinder Program, a 30-day alpine backpacking expedition with a focus on leadership that starts in September.
“It’s a last hurrah in my home state,” she said.
Next, she’s headed to Costa Rica for three months for a marine science program that includes living with a host family. Along with improving her Spanish and earning diving certifications, she said, she expects the program to help her with her plan to study marine science in college.
Last, she’s headed to Australia with a work visa through a program that provides training on how to work on a ranch, then a job fair for placement. She said the program combines her love of horses — she’s volunteered the past five summers at a ranch in Berthoud — with an opportunity to learn independence.
“It’s a way to figure out how to be out in the world by myself,” she said.
Along with having her gap year mapped out, she also knows where she’s going to college. She received deferred enrollment at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“When I go into college, I’ll have all this information,” she said. “It’s a nice head start.”
Fellow Peak to Peak graduate Kira Hensley’s gap year involves an extra year of high school.
She’s one of 250 American high school students awarded the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship this year. The 11-month youth exchange program will place her with a home family in Germany so she can attend a German high school.
“It’s definitely nice to take a break instead of going straight to college, but still be in school and using my brain and exploring another culture,” she said. “I’ll see how a different school system works.”
Her goal is to become fluent in German, which will be her third language. She’s already fluent in Spanish. Another selling point, she said, is the cost of the program is covered by a scholarship.
“My dream job is to work for the CIA or FBI in cultural analysis,” she said. “It would be good to know multiple languages.”
After her year in Germany, she’s headed to the honors college at the University of Kansas.
Thinking it over
Of course, not all students delaying college have a definite college plan.
Boulder High graduate Irby Wilcox, a National Merit semifinalist, is taking a year to decide if he wants to enroll in college. He was accepted to the University of Colorado Boulder, but after taking advanced math classes there while at Boulder High found it “not very different” from high school.
“A lot of adults told me that when they went to college, being a student had been their whole lives,” he said. “They wished they had experienced not being a student first. I want to gain work habits before I waste thousands of dollars on something I might not want to do.”
So far, he has a job lined up over the summer as a camp counselor at Boulder Sword Camp and a plan to visit Germany in the fall with his mom. He also would love to visit Siberia.
“There’s a lot of the real world out there,” he said. “I want to see some of it.”