The gap year is popular in many countries outside the United States. The American Gap Association defines a gap year as “a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers.” Typically, a high school graduate will delay starting university by one year in order to travel, volunteer or work.
Gaining real world experience after 18+ years in a classroom helps develop an individual’s leadership and independence. Those who participate in a gap year arrive on campus with more maturity, work experience and practical skills than their peers. As a result, gap year participants are able to get more out of their university education, as well as be more competitive in the job market for internships during school and full-time jobs upon graduation.
However, although well known outside the U.S., the gap year concept is still a largely alien one to American high school students. For many, the notion of a gap year evokes clichés of backpacking through Southeast Asia, from one party to the next, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but which may not be maximizing the use of a young person’s time. In addition, there is no single program or organization that serves as a “one-stop shop” for information and opportunities. Thus, it can be hard for a potential gap year student to know what are her options for taking a year off from formal schooling, as well as the benefits and risks.
My idea is to launch a National Bridge Year Program (NBYP) that will formalize the gap year as a credible option for American high school students before attending university. It is important to emphasize that a gap or bridge year probably does not make sense for every high school student, so NBYP would be an optional supplement to a student’s past and future formal education. However, the goal of NBYP would be to maximize access to information, opportunities, and financial support for those students who would want to participate.
After deciding to defer, high school seniors would apply to work in a specific location, either in the U.S. or abroad. Each location would offer a range of service and educational opportunities with non-profit community organizations, including government agencies, schools, NGOs, healthcare clinics and others. Types of opportunities could include:
- Education (e.g. teaching English to recent immigrants or to grade school students in rural China);
- Health (e.g. working at a free clinic in a U.S. city or supporting disease research at a university in Germany); and
- Environment (e.g. volunteering at an outdoor school in Oregon or working with an NGO on marine conservation in Madagascar).
Prior to beginning their year of service, participants would have an orientation and training with their NBYP cohort for a particular location or opportunity. I envision this training would take place between June and September each year immediately following participants’ high school graduation, and last anywhere from two weeks to two months, depending on the nature of the individual’s work for the year. Thereafter, participants would be sent to their post for a period of nine months.
The administrator for the program would be an independent, non-profit modeled on the Institute of International Education, which administers programs of study and training for students, such as the Fulbright Program. This independent organization would partner with universities to offer high school seniors who have been admitted to a particular university to delay matriculation by one year in order to participate in the NBYP. In addition, it would be responsible for identifying and recruiting partner organizations who would host NBYP participants, as well as reviewing applications and assigning specific posts to NBYP participants.
The program would be financed by contributions from the U.S. federal government, universities, foundations, corporations and other donors. Although the positions would be unpaid volunteer work, participants would be offered travel and cost-of-living allowances, grants or student loans to help mitigate the financial burden and ensure the program is accessible to all who are interested.
Finally, an alumni network would help NBYP participants maintain contacts with each other and their partner organizations. Lessons learned and best practices can be collected from prior participants and shared with the incoming class for a specific location or volunteer opportunity. In addition, the platform would serve as a job networking opportunity, years after NBYP participants have finished their service year.
- Students – this idea directly impacts graduating high school seniors by allowing them the opportunity to gain practical work experience, contribute service to either the local or global community and engage in significant personal growth. The Bridge Year will better prepare those students for university and the job market versus their peers.
- Partner Organizations – working with youth volunteers who are passionate, energetic and possess unique skills (e.g. social media) will help partner non-profit organizations expand their impact. In addition, it could serve as a pipeline for future interns and full-time employees.
- Non-Partner Organizations – even organizations that are not formal partners of NBYP, such as private companies, will benefit from the added skills and experience of NBYP participants when they enter the labor force.
- Universities – after participants complete their service year, higher education institutions would receive more mature students who would serve as positive contributors to the university community. The unique experiences and outlook of a NBYP participant will help contribute to the discussions in the classroom, while a set of unique skills, leadership and independence will allow NBYP participants to become active members of extracurricular organizations.
- Donors – the NBYP offers an opportunity for government and education sector stakeholders to invest in an initiative that offers tangible benefits for U.S. students to supplement their high school education.
The NBYP provides graduating high school seniors with practical skills and an opportunity for personal growth (e.g. leadership and independence) that will better prepare participants for university and the job market. According to data compiled by the American Gap Association:
- Interest and enrollment by American high school students in gap years has grown over time
- Gap year participants perform better academically in university versus their peers
- Gap year participants enjoy high job satisfaction as a result of a less self-centered attitude towards their career
- 90% of gap year participants returned to formal education (e.g. university) within one year
- 60% of gap year participants confirmed that their gap year experience influenced their choices for an academic major and/or careers
- Gap year participants are more mature and independent versus their peers
- 88% of gap year participants reported that their gap year experience positively and significantly contributed to their employability in the labor market
PROTOPYING OF IDEA
I think the best way to evaluate this idea would be to survey existing high school seniors who are planning to attend university, as well as recent graduates of university who have entered (or are attempting to) enter the job market. The survey would touch on gaps in their education to date, what they are interested in pursuing in the future (academically and professionally) and what they would do if offered a gap year (whether they would accept it and what would they do with it). In particular, I would interview university graduates who have participated in a gap year, as well as their professors and managers, to better understand how the gap year experience changed their university and work experiences relative to their peers. Finally, I would collect and evaluate any existing data collected on gap year participants from any comparable programs, such as Princeton’s Bridge Year Program.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR OPENIDEO COMMUNITY
The input that I’m looking for from the OpenIDEO community is on the following questions:
- What critical components of the program am I missing that the NBYP would need? What would the design of those components look like?
- How do we implement such a program? For example, do we prepare a formal pitch for the NBYP and shop it around to universities until we have a critical mass who would be willing to trial?
- How do we raise funds for such a program?
- What are the major risks for the NBYP? How can we mitigate those risks?
- Anything else?
Organizations/ideas that I gained inspiration for my idea include:
Princeton University Bridge Year Program
American Gap Association
Cover photo sourced from Google Images