Gap Years Are Becoming Popular, but Are Underrepresented Students Left Behind?

Global Citizen Year gap year students with their Brazilian host family in 2015 (Photo courtesy Global Citizen Year)

When Malia Obama decided to take a gap year after graduating from high school in 2016, many Americans didn’t even know what a gap year was. The concept of taking a year off between high school and college was and remains to some in the United States an unfamiliar practice only meant for socioeconomically privileged young Europeans.

But Dianna Hahn, associate director for the Gap Year Association (GYA), says that the benefits of gap years are slowly winning U.S. students over. A gap year “promotes maturity. It promotes independence. It promotes clarity on what a student may want to do for his or her career,” Hahn says. Research shows that those who complete a gap year perform better in college, are more satisfied with their careers, and are more easily employed — all powerful incentives to explore options other than starting college immediately after high school graduation.

Awareness of the gap year may be expanding, but socioeconomic and racial diversity are lagging behind. The GYA found in its 2014-2015 alumni survey that the majority of gap year participants were White women with an estimated household annual income of over $100,000. Only 1 percent of gap year participants had a mother who hadn’t graduated from high school. Just 3 percent came from families with less than $25,000 annual parental income.

This lack of diversity hurts all gap year students, says Elikem Tomety Archer, vice president of programs at Global Citizen Year (GCY) and chairman of the GYA’s diversity, inclusion and access (DIA) committee. GCY is an Oakland, Ca.-based nonprofit that recruits and trains high school graduates and supports them in immersion programs in communities across Latin American, Asia, and Africa.

Archer works both in her own organization and with her fellow GYA committee members to ensure that more underrepresented high school graduates have the opportunity to pursue gap years.

According to Archer, 55 percent of GCY’s fellows identify as people of color, and 30 percent are on full gap year scholarships. The key is to match opportunity to talent. “There are high performance graduates anywhere, but you have to go out and find them,” Archer says.

One of the strategies GCY uses to reach graduates from diverse backgrounds is to partner with organizations that are already serving these populations.

Working with other organizations is the first step, but it’s not enough in and of itself, Archer says. She emphasizes the second piece of GCY’s diversity, inclusion, and access efforts — a need-blind application process. When gap year organizations consider students’ financial capacity before acceptance, high-performing, diverse applicants are weeded out before they ever have a chance.

Even after a diverse group of graduates has been accepted into a gap year program, the work is still not finished. In order to truly be diverse and inclusive, gap year organizations need to ensure that students see themselves reflected in faculty, staff, and guest speakers. “You don’t want fellows of color or fellows from a low-income demographic to come into the program and say, ‘Oh, but I’m not reflected here,’” Archer says.

There’s also a financial piece to the puzzle. Gap year programs can be expensive, and taking a year before college could mean one more year before employment.

Hahn presents the idea of a gap year to students and families as a long-term investment and even an opportunity to save money on college.

“It can be a financial benefit to take a gap year to sort some things out before you start that very expensive four-year college degree,” she says. “If you come out of a college experience having spent multiple years partying, and without focus, or majoring in something you’re not actually interested in, then you’re going to have to spend several years … to make a switch or even go back to school for something else. A gap year can help clarify a student’s interests so when they get to college their time is spent more effectively.”

The GYA also works hard to ensure gap years are as accessible as possible by providing free services and resources such as planning guides, funding strategies, and list of gap year counselors. The organization encourages scholarships as well. According to the 2016 GYA survey, members and provisional members gave away more than $4 million in scholarships and need-based grants. Not all programs are tuition-based, Hahn says, and some students work or even stay home during parts of their gap year.

The bottom line, Archer adds, is that for these programs to be the best they can be, they must be diverse. Diversity can only happen when organizations commit financial and human resources to reaching, recruiting, and serving racially and economically diverse participants.

“We have a way to go,” Archer says. “We have to roll up our sleeves and do the work.”Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for DiversityIS.