OPINION: Guest writer

Taking a gap year

The path to college, career success

Entering the so-called home stretch is a bittersweet experience for many high school seniors. There's energy and excitement surrounding athletic games, homecoming dances and other "lasts." There's also palpable anxiety as young adults begin to contemplate their next steps.

With winter deadlines for college, post-secondary programs and financial assistance looming, some may pause their applications for an increasingly popular option: the gap year.

For decades, pursuing a gap year was considered an unconventional path. The decision to take a break between high school and higher education--or college and career--was riddled with misconceptions and misinformation. No longer.

Since covid-19, gap years have become more commonplace. According to current data, 40,000 and 60,000 American students take gap years annually. And it's no wonder when you consider the long-term benefits of structured programs like City Year.

Research consistently shows that gap years increase participating students' focus and motivation, leading to higher college retention and graduation rates. They allow young adults to become more independent, think on their feet and learn to adapt to complex challenges. These enriching experiences also allow for unmatched personal and professional growth, including enhanced empathy, a stronger sense of purpose and greater self-confidence and reliance.

The evidence is clear--students who complete gap years are more prepared to succeed in the workforce and life.

Take City Year as a prime example. As AmeriCorps members with the education nonprofit, young adults commit to serving nearly 2,000 hours in local schools. Alongside partner teachers, these student success coaches help advance educational equity by providing children in need with tailored academic, emotional, and social support. In the classroom and through regular training and professional development-focused sessions, these 17- to 25-year-olds learn the hard and soft skills they need to thrive in their future careers.

After their year of service, they have an arsenal of in-demand workforce skills--the ability to build relationships, communicate effectively, manage their time, problem-solve, and more.

For some high school seniors, affordability was long a sticking point in deciding whether to take a gap year. But that is no longer the case, especially when many students begin to consider the comparable college or university enrollment costs.

Many gap-year programs provide generous financial incentives to participating students, such as the opportunity to earn college credit or scholarship money to offset future education expenses. City Year offers AmeriCorps members a biweekly stipend, a nearly $7,000 Segal Education Award for tuition assistance, paid vacation, health insurance, and more than 200 hours of professional development.

Today, perhaps more than ever, high school seniors have various options for life after graduation. With gap years, they have the unique opportunity to grow--personally and professionally--while gaining critical skills needed for long-term success, both in and out of the workforce.

For students still weighing their next steps, City Year invites them to consider becoming an AmeriCorps member. Now through Feb. 2, interested individuals can submit applications for 2024-2025 at cityyear.org.

Alexis Freeman is the community partnership manager for City Year Little Rock and a former AmeriCorps member who served with the education nonprofit during the 2019-2020 school year. Email her at afreeman6@cityyear.org.