4 Reasons to Take a Gap Year Before College

Why it pays to be patient – 4 reasons I wish I had waited to go to college

Making major life decisions in early adulthood

Imagine a world where you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom and then months later, you are expected to make a major life decision that determines your future career.

This is what we ask of college students as they enter the halls of their new home for the next four plus years after high school. It is very rare that people actually know for sure what they want their life to look like when they are fresh out of high school. And yet we expect these young adults to select a course of study and foresee their entire life.

The gap year

When I was an undergraduate, one of my friends was a year older than everyone else in the freshman class because she had taken a year off between high school and college to travel. At the time, I thought this was both strange and wonderful. It had been drilled into my head for years that success means going to college right after graduating from high school. That’s just what people do. But in reality, my friend had it right. There are myriad benefits to taking some time off between high school and college!

This is commonly called a gap year or sabbatical year. People who choose to take a gap year (or years) between high school and college might spend that time volunteering, working and saving money, serving as an intern, or traveling. Gap years are an excellent way for young adults to experience “real life” and gain a sense of independence, financial skills, and other competencies that will benefit them in adulthood.


Planning for your investment

Here is a fundamental truth: It costs money to go to college. You do not get a refund if you are not happy with your results. This is a huge investment. If I could walk up to Kent State University and hand them my Master’s degree in exchange for $40,000 cash, I would take the hit to my resume by losing the credentials. But I can’t. Your college education is non-refundable and we need to give it serious, painstaking consideration before we decide what to do about it.

People don’t invest in the stock market without researching their options. People don’t buy a house without researching the neighborhood and thinking about their future plans.

Investing in college is not investing in real estate with a mortgage or investing in a car – you cannot recoup your costs and move on to the next step that is better suited. You need to think this through. You are going to pay a lot of money for a piece of paper that says you studied the same thing hundreds of other people have studied. You need to have a plan for that degree.

How can taking time between high school and college help you make the most of your education in the future?

Avoiding debt

People tell you that student debt is okay because it’s “good debt.” That is a lie. There is no good debt. If people paid cash for their college tuition, a natural byproduct of this would be for them to take more time before college, work a part- or full-time job during college, or even spread out their degree over several years of part time study. This would allow for a lot of time to reflect on their major, course of study, and career path, while also developing an intrinsic work ethic and the understanding that progress and success come from hard work.

Reflecting on my own college career, I could have paid cash for my undergraduate tuition. I absolutely could have. I received a considerable scholarship that paid for half of my private tuition. I received other grants and stipends as well. I had roughly $20,000 in student loan debt from my undergraduate career, which I completed in three years of study. Could I have worked part time to make $20,000 over three years? I could have.

If I had worked 20 hours per week during the school year and 40 hours per week during the summer, I could have made over $7,000 per year (calculated with the minimum wage from when I was a college freshman). I absolutely could have paid my own tuition.

Living within your means

By paying cash for their own tuition,  people will be more realistic about what they can afford. College prestige and rankings are pretty much bogeys that distract from the actual goal of completing a course of study. The college where you study does not define your success. Nobody goes into a doctor’s office and asks where the doctor studied – as long as they completed medical school, that is what counts.

People who work hard and have a resume to back up their credentials, regardless of their institution’s prestige, are worth a lot to companies that are recruiting talent. Unless your “dream school” is the ONLY place that offers a particular degree, there are other options for different price ranges.

If I had been saving up to pay my way through college and couldn’t have afforded the private school tuition of my alma mater, I would have been forced to prioritize and maybe find a public school with a much lower tuition rate. I could have gone to Kent State, where tuition was about $10,000 per year. I might have even gotten scholarships to cover most of that, meaning my part-time job would have provided more than enough for living expenses and plenty to save in the bank.

Realistic career & life planning

I changed my major twice in three years as an undergraduate. I graduated with a BA after majoring in Psychology and Spanish, and my career goal at the time of my decision to change to a Psych major was to be a high school guidance counselor. After becoming a Resident Assistant (RA) my second year of college, I decided I wanted to go into residence life and so I pursued a Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration and Student Personnel. I didn’t get any residence life assistantships, which would have paid my tuition and provided a living stipend. I did get a half-time (10 hours per week) assistantship in career services at a small liberal arts school, however, which paid me about $600/month.

I was absolutely married to the idea of this M.Ed., so what did I do? I took the job offer and took out double the loans needed to pay tuition, then lived off the excess. I ended up really enjoying career services and decided that I didn’t want to work in residence life anyway, because that is a 24/7 job. In an advising department like academic advising or career services, I could generally expect the traditional 9-to-5 workday, plus the additional late day for special programming and events. This sounded like a much better ideal role for me.

Had I waited until I was more seasoned in the work force, perhaps finding an entry level administrative position at a college to work with students, I could have found out a lot more about my future career aspirations. My career path has taken a ridiculous trajectory – after 100 job applications and a smattering of interviews in the higher ed field, I ended up as my best friend’s nanny, a temp in a real estate office, and finally got a full time job at a chemical manufacturing plant which was recently bought out and now I’m a corporate employee.

To top it all off… all I want to do in life is be a stay at home mom and work from home. If I had been saving up and working while I figured this out, I could have avoided the debt, lived well within my means, and better planned my career and life path.

An attitude of gratitude

In my experience, the non-traditional students, those who are older than the majority of their cohort in a college class, are less likely to skip class, are more likely to go above and beyond on their work, and are more likely to be working outside their school work. Keep in mind, I am not a scientific study, this is just what I have personally seen in my experiences as a college student and working with students. The people who are working through college and have been in the workforce tend to appreciate their professors and assignments with a greater sense of gratitude than your average college student who doesn’t truly value their education because they haven’t truly paid for it.

This is the same sense of gratitude you get when you buy things with cash instead of on credit cards. When you can only pay for things with the money you have earned, you appreciate those things more. You value them, because you can literally see the money – money you made with your hard work and effort – leave your wallet as you pay for them. Using student loans means you get a big pile of money you didn’t have to earn. Using credit cards means you are spending money you haven’t earned yet. Debt breeds entitlement and resentment – give it to me now, and I will complain about it when I have to pay it back with interest. Working hard and buying things you can truly appreciate and value breeds gratitude and joy.

My parents covered the bill for college (minus the loans, of course). Because of this, I didn’t have to work to support myself. They were supporting me. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – I think that helping your children pay for college is a wonderful blessing, and I plan to save for my children’s college tuition as well. But I’m only saving a certain amount, those kids aren’t going to Yale on me just because they want to go to Yale. What I can instill in my children is the knowledge that they won’t be going to college with debt. Therefore, whatever mom and dad can’t save up, the kids are going to have to cover. And that means hard work. That means appreciating the value of a dollar and what that dollar can buy – in this case, an education. I am so grateful to my parents for making sure I could go to my dream school for my undergraduate career. I am only sorry that I didn’t realize I could do it myself. (No, dad, I cannot reimburse you. Sorry).


It is okay to not go to college

These days, college is synonymous with success. But here is a secret: You do not have to go to college. Some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of our time have been college dropouts or otherwise degree-free. It is OKAY to not go to college. You can learn almost anything for free at the library. You can learn literally anything online. There are experts everywhere who can help you build your own business from nothing and become a successful entrepreneur and live life on your own terms, with or without college.

Do yourself a favor, and take some time to think it over.

4 thoughts on “4 Reasons to Take a Gap Year Before College

  1. Shari Rolston says:

    I absolutely love this. However, had you not gone to college we would never have met, disliked each other and eventually became dear friends. The ending is especially perfect!

    • Caitlin says:

      Shari, I have no doubt in my mind that WC is where I was destined to be at that time in my life. Too much good has come of my time there, especially meeting and becoming good friends with you. I have no regrets about undergrad. My M.Ed…. ehhhhhh. Haha! But I would of course do it all again, just maybe wishing somebody would tell me not to go to grad school without the cash to pay for it.🙂

  2. Lois says:

    Caitlin, I give similar advice to kids who ask me about college. I tell them to take a couple of years off, move out of their parents’ home and find out what they really want to do. So far not one person I gave this advice to has ended up going to college.

    There are so many reasons I give this advice. The first,is exactly the reason you gave first. Who really knows what their career choice will look like in the real world. They could hate it.. In many companies, should a degree be necessary the company will pay for your education so why should you have to take on debt to go to school. I recently heard Starbucks will pay for four years of college and McDonald’s will also pay for college so it’s not like you need to find employment in the field you think you want to work in to get your education paid for.

    The other big reason is that if you go to college right out of high school the university bases your tuition and grants on your parents income. If your parents are considered middle class then you will receive next to nothing in financial aid and if your parents don’t have enough to pay for your education you are stuck with loans.

    All in all, going to college right out of high school seems like a really bad idea, at least to me.

    • Caitlin says:

      That is a great idea about the student aid being based on the parents’ income. I need to look more into that and add to this post. Thank you for mentioning it! It is good to hear from you, Lois🙂 I hope you are well.

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