COVID-19 is changing high school seniors’ outlook on next year’s plans in dramatic ways.
In a recent national survey of high school seniors conducted by the Art and Science Group, 17 percent of seniors said they were either definitely or most likely changing plans to attend a four-year institution as a full-time student.
Of the students who are questioning their fall plans, most are looking to take a gap year or enroll in a part-time program.
This should come as no surprise. The pandemic hit the United States as our high school seniors were completing their last college visits, finalizing their applications, and waiting to hear back on financial aid decisions. This, in addition to assessing the growing economic impact.
For some, a gap year presents a viable solution: a relatively short-term commitment, a less expensive alternative, a college resume-building use of time, and time to see how COVID-19 impacts their first-choice institution.
Let me explain more of what a gap year is.
What Is a Gap Year?
Whether you’ve heard of a gap year or not, let’s clarify. Too many believe a gap year is a vacation, only for direction-less/checked-out student who may be delaying the inevitable. It’s (usually) not. Sure, there are some unhelpful programs out there that contribute to that misconception, but if you find a well-crafted gap year, it’s anything but a waste of time.
Here’s the definition we use to put some parameters on what actually constitutes a gap year:
A gap year is a time of experiential learning, taken after high school, that is used to build professional skills, expand practical experience, and grow personal awareness.
For Christians, a Christ-centered gap year has the added component of discerning God’s call, discovering purpose, and building a practiced faith.
Why Take a Gap Year after a Global Pandemic
Of those who said they were changing their plans, 35 percent are planning on taking a gap year. We’ve already talked about a few reasons: it’s short-term commitment, it’s less expensive, it builds the college resume, and you can see how your first-choice institution weathers the storm.
However, I want to step back and look at how a gap year can specifically help this graduating high school class of 2020 considering the massive global disruption of COVID-19.
First, a gap year will provide space to ask big questions.
For many of our youth, this pandemic has raised a lot of big questions: How can a good and loving God allow a pandemic? What is true? How do I respond to fear?
These questions aren’t quickly answered. If faith leaders try to provide quick and easy answers, they’re doing a disservice to those who listen.
Instead of trying to manage a full academic workload on top of these big questions, a gap year can make space for our young adults to ask big questions and wrestle with finding the answers without the major life change of starting college and all that entails.
James 1:5 reminds us that “if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” We all need to be reminded of this truth today, but especially for our young adults. Let’s teach them how to seek God in the midst of uncertainty.
Second, a gap year will allow time to reflect, process, and plan.
Our high school students just completed the wildest semester of their lives. While their studies might have continued with eLearning, a lot happened in a short amount of time.
A Christian gap year provides time and space for our young adults to pause, reflect, and develop spiritual practices that will lead to a rich communion with God. While not all gap year programs make space for this, Vanguard—the gap year program through Wheaton College—builds rhythms of reflection, prayer, and solitude into the fabric of daily, weekly and monthly life of our students. Lots of others do as well.
What comes from reflection? New connections, perspectives, and ultimately—clarity. A student who has a deep vibrant relationship with Jesus and has a better understanding of the world they entering as adults will have a profoundly different outlook not only on college, but also on life.
Third, a gap year creates an important in-person community.
I love the gap year students I work with—they’re passionate, earnest, and creative. They also have room to grow—especially in navigating interpersonal relationships.
When we ask Vanguard students what the most influential part of their year was, it always comes back to the same thing: community. Why? When you can’t choose your friends or run away from interpersonal issues, and when you are fully known and loved by others, you grow in incredible ways.
In the course of just a few weeks, our world went from being hyper-connected in person to living almost entirely online. But with the spread of COVID-19, we have just walked into a new reality of living online. It’s important we are doing this now, but I don’t think it’s healthy or sustainable long term. We need each other, and we need physical proximity to each other.
Our students, who are already so connected online, need to step back into true, authentic, face-to-face community as soon as possible. They need to experience life away from screens and WIFI to understand how it impacts their life.
Before you call me a luddite, let me clarify: I’m not anti-tech; I’m pro-conversation—in person and face to face.
Christian gap years make space for students to learn how to navigate real, authentic, face-to-face community—both when it’s easy and when it’s tough.
A Gap Year Could Be the Next Best Step
For the 35 percent of students noted in the Art and Science Group survey who are considering a gap year, this may be a new idea for them. However, based on our experience, it could be a helpful one.
A gap year will provide space to ask big questions and discern what’s next. It will provide time to reflect on high school, grow from that experience, and plan your next steps. A gap year will provide a wonderful community that will grow into life-long friends.
How do I know? I’ve watched it happen year after year and the reasons to take a gap year are only growing. This new cohort of gap year students will be no different.
Charlie Goeke is the Director of Vanguard, the gap year of Wheaton College.