Stephen Sutherland graduated high school at 17 with no solid plans for college. He thought about teaching as a possible career, but wasn't ready to commit. With no definite direction, Sutherland still felt like he should get a degree, because that's what people expected him to do. He planned to start with community college to keep the costs down.
But a month after graduation, Sutherland attended a two-week student conference hosted by Summit Ministries. The speakers asked him fundamental questions about life, about what it means to be human, and what it means to be made in the image of God - questions he realized he didn't have sufficient answers for. When the conference leaders talked about taking a year off before going to college, to explore those questions more fully, Sutherland knew that's what he needed to do.
"I wanted to take a few months to address the ultimate questions of life and the answers I had for them at the time," he said. "I wanted to reassess what I wanted to do with my life."
Higher education professionals say many high school graduates, like Sutherland, aren't ready for the traditional, four-year college experience. Studies show that students who transition to college immediately after high school typically show symptoms of academic burnout, immaturity and the absence of direction or drive. In response, education experts are starting to recommend intentional time off between high school and college. The break helps students mature and develop a personal purpose for their next step before they take it, advocates say.
According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education, only 59 percent of students who started college in 2005 graduated by 2011. Students' lack of direction contributes to their inability to get their degrees, say Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson in their book, The Gap-Year Advantage: "Of those in college, many will report that they do not know why they are there or how their classes relate to any life or career goal."
Derek Melleby, director of the College Transition Initiative at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, has spent his career researching, writing and speaking about issues students face as they transition from high school to college. Research shows that nearly 80 percent of students heading to college can't articulate clear reasons and life goals, which explains why they aren't developmentally ready for college - emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually, Melleby said.
Many students "go to college to get a degree to get a job, with very little reflection on becoming a better person or their responsibility as a global citizen," Melleby writes in his article "God in the Gap Year," posted on the center's website. Students should seriously consider taking a year off to provide context for a college career before they make the huge investment, he suggests.
But a year off shouldn't just be for playing video games and eating junk food. A gap year should be a "pause with a purpose," said Ian Slater, who spent last year researching gap year programs for his master's degree dissertation in higher education at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa. The idea of a gap year has a long history that gives meaning to today's programs, Slater said.
In the 1600s and 1800s, young men in Europe took a 'grand tour' to experience travel, high culture, and self-exploration before they entered adulthood or went on to further study, Slater said. Other cultures also have rites of passage that include travel and a search for meaning. For example, young Australian Aborigines take a "walkabout," where they journey into the wilderness and live for a period of time before entering manhood.
"This idea of taking time between being a boy and a man to go though a spiritual journey is a theme woven through history," Slater said. "The gap year isn't that original or unique - it's pausing with a purpose to grow - but it changes with context."
The gap year remains a popular post-high school choice in Canada, Australia and England, but it has been much slower to gain popularity in the U.S. But many experts say American higher education is on the brink of a major change, as more creative delivery systems become a popular alternative to the traditional four-year college degree. The recognition that the traditional path from high school to college isn't for everyone could usher in greater acceptance for gap year programs, which have already seen increased interest and enrollment.
At IMPACT 360, an academic gap year program that emphasizes biblical worldview training, enrollment has increased 60 percent in the last six years. Summit Semester, the gap year program offered by Summit Ministries, also has seen a steady enrollment increase, with the number of participants more than tripling since 2006. But the timing of the applications is most telling said Dustin Jizmejian, the program's director. During the last six years, inquiries and applications for the program have shifted from six weeks before the program starts to months in advance. Jizmejian thinks the shift reflects the way applicants view the gap year option. It's no longer just a last resort but something people plan for in advance as a credible post-high school option.
But gap years are not designed to replace the traditional college route, said Dr. John Basie, director of IMPACT360. Among other things, gap year programs should enhance a student's post-high school choice by helping him find the direction and drive for the rest of his life, Basie said.
All eight Ivy League schools offer one- or two-year deferments for their recently accepted students so that they can participate in gap year programs. Brown University's website says that "students who take gap years generally find that they are more appreciative of and excited about their education than ever before." The University of Pennsylvania's Career Services website states that volunteer and community service gap year programs have become an increasingly popular option among their students.
Harvard administrators are particularly outspoken about encouraging students to take a gap year. In an article on the admissions website, three Harvard administrators encourage students to spend a year in a "meaningful way" to avoid burnout from the academic pressure. Despite the encouragement, only 50 to 70 of the school's 6,000 undergraduates, about 1 percent, choose the option every year. But the results have been uniformly positive, administrators say.
Harvard administrators admit that taking time off can be daunting and not the right choice for everyone. While some students aren't ready for college, many are, and both options should be considered for students who want to transition well from high school into adulthood, Melleby said.
Five years after attending Summit Semester, Sutherland has a wife expecting their first child and a degree in history from Hillsdale College. He now works as a Summit Semester mentor in Colorado. He still reflects on his gap year as one of the best decisions of his life because it taught him how to engage the world fully.
"I took college more seriously [after Summit Semester] because it really drew out something that I hadn't understood before," Sutherland said. "[I gained] a clear picture of why I should work hard in college - not just for good grades so I could have a stepping-stone to a better job, retire and do what I want for the last few years of my life - but because it's a way I could love God and love others by serving them with what I learned."