For the average American teenager, college is the pathway to success. But is it really the only option? Most Americans are convinced of the prestige of the Ivy League school. Once you go to Harvard or Columbia, you’re set for the rest of your life. You’ll have a six figure job waiting for you upon graduation. Your excellent credit score will secure you a five-bedroom, six-bath house. You can have it all, the true American dream — if you make it across the stage and grab that diploma. But not every student is able to attend college.
Education is complicated. About 15 percent of all young people, or around 4.7 million, fall into the category of “disconnected youth”. They aren’t in school and don’t have a job, effectively in the purgatory of not quite a child but definitely not an adult. Nearly 20 percent have taken some college courses… but have not earned a degree. 25 percent didn’t even finish high school.
Still, it is undeniable that college has become more and more of a necessity for navigating the real world. An extensive body of research has argued that obtaining a college degree is a net benefit on pretty much every front — from higher earnings to lower unemployment rates. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those without a college degree can find themselves stuck as the job market is saturated with a mandate for educational credentials. One third of Americans without a four-year college degree say they have declined to apply for a job they felt qualified for… because the job required a bachelor’s degree.
The idea of jumping from high school to college seems intimidating. A price tag is attached to that diploma, after all. Furthermore, what if you have no idea what you want to do with your life? Instead of rushing into something so important, maybe you want to take a look at a gap year. The Gap Year Association, an nonprofit based in Oregon, helps students access gap year opportunities. They have found that, on average, between 40,000 and 60,000 students take a gap year each academic year. That number, during the 2020-2021 school year, rose to an extraordinary 130,000.
One of these students is Katherine Dunn.
Katherine, an alumni of Olympic High School from Charlotte, North Carolina, fell out of love with education in the 2020-2021 school year. Like so many other students, she was discouraged with the virtual schooling that COVID pandemic guidelines mandated. Her day was spent in front of a screen, listening to her teacher drone on about history Katie couldn’t bring herself to focus on. During her gap year, however, Katherine was able to “relive her childhood summers.” She would “wake up at whatever time, spend time with her parents, and do her own thing.” She took the opportunity to secure a job where she saved some of each check for a college fund.
“I didn't think I could handle only having a summer's break between graduating high school and freshman year of college, especially when the senior burnout was making me sick of school,” Katherine told me. “So instead of forcing myself to do something I didn't even know I wanted and potentially making that burnout worse, I gave myself a break. I got a job I enjoy, and waited until I felt like I actually wanted to go to school again, and only then did I consider applying to college.”
“Falling in love with education again... that didn't happen until my friend Nathan asked me to help him unpack at his dorm room at Appalachian State University,” she continued. “He had been trying to convince me to apply since I graduated, and when we got up there, I fell in love. The campus, the scenery, I loved it. He talked about some of the stuff he does, like his acapella group, and it reminded me a lot of my choir class at Olympic, and I loved choir. Easily one of my favorite electives. And you know, when you do something for twelve years, and you have the option to not do it anymore, at some point you start to miss it, you know? But back then it was a requirement, and now I have a choice.”
There is no right way to spend a gap year… Some students decide to fly to greener pastures abroad and experience another culture. Others volunteer at a local charity or do an internship. Personal growth is the main goal of gap year. 98% of students said their gap year helped develop them as a person, 97% saw an increase of their maturity level and 97% reported an increase in self-confidence.
Katie is set to attend Appalachian State University this coming fall. She wants to be a school teacher and continue to study theater.