The high school class of 2020 faced a tough choice. They could start college during the pandemic—taking courses online at home, or in person wearing masks in emptied-out lecture halls. Or, they could try to find jobs—during a crisis that left frontline workers vulnerable and employment hard to come by.
Then there was a third option that got lots of attention: a gap year. Maybe new graduates could wait out the disruption until conditions returned to something like normal.
Taking an intentional detour on the road from high school to college wasn’t a new idea, but experts and news articles predicted it would be far more appealing during the pandemic. Anticipating irregularities in the admission cycle such as more deferrals, some colleges accepted more students than usual.
A year later, however, it’s difficult to say for sure to what extent those predictions came true. Some elite institutions reported big deferral rates, like Harvard, where nearly 20 percent of freshmen delayed enrollment in 2020. But other colleges ended up with larger freshman classes than they could handle.
Nationwide, higher ed enrollments did fall in fall 2020, but they also fell again in fall 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which doesn’t track how many students intentionally delay starting college. Colleges rarely collect data on why students request deferrals. The industry that’s developed to provide formal gap-year experiences doesn’t have conclusive data about pandemic-era gap years, either.
“No one has really been able to track it down because so many students are doing them independently,” says Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, which produced a state-of-the-field report in November.
The dearth of data raises questions about what a gap year is, exactly. To the Gap Year Association, it’s a period of experiential learning that Knight says ideally has at least some scaffolding. Programs facilitate experiences such as surfing and studying Spanish in Costa Rica (from $2,000 for four weeks); farming and activism training in North Carolina ($12,000 for a semester), and adventure activities in South Africa ($20,000 for a year).
But plenty of young adults who can’t afford or aren’t interested in these types of predestined pathways also pause their classroom progression between high school and higher ed. The ways they fill that time—working to make money or caring for family or trying to restore their mental health—aren’t always glamorous and rarely translate to college credit.
Yet an independent gap year—whether recognized as such—is still plenty educational, according to Carmen TallBear-Edmunds. A 2020 graduate, she spent the year after high school working on a farm and at a fast-food restaurant.
“A gap year can look like so many different things,” TallBear-Edmunds says. “I learned a lot about what it is to live alone, pay bills, show up to work on time when you really don’t want to. I think that’s a valuable thing to learn.”
Shifting Gap Year Industry
There are signs that more students took gap years in 2020 than before the pandemic, but it was hardly a tsunami.
Some colleges saw a three-fold increase in the number of students requesting a gap year, according to data collected in summer 2020 from 27 higher ed institutions by the Gap Year Research Consortium. Approved gap-year requests jumped on average from 17 to 48 students among 11 small, private, liberal arts colleges; from 34 to to 110 students among 13 medium-sized private colleges; and from 37 to 118 among one public and two private large universities.
At the University of Michigan, 245 freshmen deferred in fall 2020 compared to 52 freshmen in 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Boston Globe reported 2020 deferral rates of 8 percent at MIT (up from 1 percent) and 10 percent at Bates College (up from 4 percent), compared to just 1.2 percent at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
An 18-year-old needs the right balance of structure and no structure.
Meanwhile, the number of organizations that are members of the Gap Year Association doubled, according to Knight, as new programs were created and old ones were re-marketed.
The association’s new report (not yet published online) shows that some providers saw more students apply and enroll, while many counselors reported increased student interest in gap years. Yet pandemic conditions such as travel restrictions also hurt gap-year providers, some of which cut programs and staff and saw enrollment drops.
The report wasn’t able to collect enough data to conclude what types of students participated in formal gap year programs in 2020. Typically, it “tends to skew educated, affluent, young and female,” Knight says. “That’s always been an Achilles’ heel of the field.”
But the pandemic may have pushed the industry to shift in ways that make the experience more accessible to more people, Knight says. More formal programs are now online, based in the U.S., or modular, which means theoretically it’s more possible for people to participate while also holding down a part-time job. And Knight has noticed the development of more programs that pay participants or cover their expenses rather than charge them money, in the style of AmeriCorps.
“The definition of the gap year has grown,” Knight says. “That makes me happy.”
Beyond formal programs, independent gap years can “also have phenomenal results,” he argues. Yet he cautions that stretching the concept too far without getting guidance can leave adolescents to flounder. Reading Reddit threads during the pandemic has made Knight suspect that many young adults “took a totally unstructured, independent, online, ‘hack-my-way-through-it’” approach to their gap years, he says—“and I’m seeing a lot of mixed results from those.”
While half the stories shared on social media seem positive, Knight says, the other half feature sentiments like, “‘OMG, what am I doing with myself? Anybody have any ideas?’”
“This is totally expected,” Knight says. “An 18-year-old needs the right balance of structure and no structure. You have to build from structure first.”
Throughout much of the year, I was in many ways my first support system. I think learning to do that for yourself absent an institution is really valuable.
By senior year, TallBear-Edmunds was sick of structure. She didn’t take the SAT. She wasn’t focused on college application deadlines. She was frustrated by her school curriculum.
“In some ways, it felt like the things that were being taught weren’t necessarily important, or if they were, were not taught in ways that were all that effective,” she says.
So after graduating in spring 2020, TallBear-Edmunds chose to take a year off from formal education. She wanted work experience. She wanted to read and converse with friends and family. She didn’t want to spend money on college before she felt ready.
“By the time I got out of high school, I felt done for a little bit,” she says. “And I wanted to kind of take a mental break, almost learn how to really love and enjoy learning again.”
TallBear-Edmunds even convinced two friends to take a gap year, too. They hesitated at first, but then due to the pandemic, they “completely jumped on board,” TallBear-Edmunds says. Both friends got accepted into college and deferred enrolling.
In contrast, TallBear-Edmunds says her own path forward “was not very planned.” She decided against signing up for an official gap year program, turned off by the expense as well as the concern that it would simply feel like more school.
“I think with the structure you don’t learn as much as you would have otherwise. The lack of structure is what makes that time difficult,” she says. “Throughout much of the year, I was in many ways my first support system. I think learning to do that for yourself absent an institution is really valuable, and it was needed for me.”
TallBear-Edmunds spent a month working at an organic farm in Northern California, sharing potluck meals on the weekends with fellow guests ages seven through mid-70s. Then she returned to the town in Virginia where she had attended high school, working for the next seven or eight months at a Jersey Mike’s sub shop.
“It was a little bit of a wash, to be honest,” she says—yet still informative. “When you work those types of jobs, in the lower level of the service sector, you get insight into parts of our society you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
TallBear-Edmunds felt as though her family supported her decision—even her parents, who work in higher education. Some of her living arrangements did surprise them, though.
“Eyebrows were raised,” she says. “I think sometimes both of them were like, ‘huh, you’re living in a co-op, now you’re living with a single dad, this is interesting.’”
A road trip with her father brought the gap year to a close. This fall, TallBear-Edmunds enrolled at two-year Colorado Mountain College. She appreciates that her outdoor recreation and environmental studies program is affordable and that it teaches practical skills: Her courses kicked off with a backpacking trip.
And in her new role as a dorm resident assistant, she draws on lessons she recently learned firsthand about communal living.
The past year wasn’t a perfect experience. But for TallBear-Edmunds, that wasn’t the point.
“My gap year was a little strange,” she says. “It was definitely more of a learning experience—you know, this is what the world looks like outside of your parents—than it was super fun. It was good. I’m definitely glad I did it.”