Could You Take a Gap Year? Here’s How to Afford It

Gap year

Malia Obama recently announced she’ll attend Harvard.

Rather than where she’s going to school, though, much of the buzz has focused on when she’s going to school.

That’s because she’s taking a year off between high school and college — a practice known as a “gap year.”

Though gap years are common in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, they’re only starting to catch on in the United States.

The rise in popularity, though, has been accompanied by a rise in criticism that gap years further divide the haves from the have-nots.  

Are they right? Could you ever afford a gap year — and would you want to?

What’s a Gap Year?

The fact you’ve graduated high school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for college.

And once you’ve started classes, made friends and gotten a work-study job, it’s much more difficult to just peace out for a while.

So students are starting to think proactively, and instead take a year off — a gap year — before entering college.

As for what they do during their time off, it’s as varied as the students themselves.

You could travel or volunteer, or both. You could get a job or an internship. Or you could pursue a personal project you’re passionate about.

Basically, the thought is: Take this year as a mental break, a time to pursue your dreams and educate yourself outside the classroom. You’ll return refreshed and renewed, with a better understanding of yourself and of the world.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? Where’s the controversy?

The Controversy Around Gap Years

Well, some say gap years deepen the divide between privileged classmates and their peers.

Gap years “increase the disparity in educational opportunities for students, widening the gap between those who can and can’t afford to learn outside the classroom and return to school with their newfound real-world knowledge,” writes Erin Coulehan in Slate.

And in general, Coulehan is right: 91% of gap year students estimated their parents earned $50,000 or more, according to a 2015 survey from the American Gap Association (AGA).

One potential reason for the divide: Students who depend on financial aid fear they’ll lose their packages if they defer their acceptance for a year.

But the good news is those fears are likely overblown.  

“If their family’s financial circumstances haven’t changed significantly, the student will likely receive aid again,” says U.S. News & World Report.

As for scholarships, they “vary by school, but if you’ve been offered it once, you have a good shot of being offered it again,” U.S. News reports.  

So, though it’s definitely worth discussing with your future college, the fear of losing your financial aid shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing a gap year.

How to Afford a Gap Year

In her piece “Malia Obama’s gap year is a smart choice — and a luxury that many American students can’t afford,” Coulehan laments: “If only we had a bridge.”

We don’t, yet — but perhaps we’re slowly building one.

That’s thanks to an increasing number of scholarships that encourage gap year experiences — many of them with an international focus.  

The AGA has an informative page on financial aid and scholarships for gap years, and this list of gap year scholarships from U.S. News also has some good options.

The first place to look for support, though, might be your future university: Princeton, Tufts, the University of North Carolina and Florida State University are among the growing number of schools that offer gap year grants and fellowships.

Yes, I know: A $5,000 grant from FSU isn’t going to last an entire year — but it could fund an awesome short-term trip or volunteer project.

You could then spend the rest of the year…

  • Volunteering with a program like AmeriCorps, which not only offers a stipend and free room and board, but also a $5,775 education award you can use towards college expenses.  
  • Working full time and taking community college classes — both of which will help you financially when you go to college.

Because, honestly, what’s the rush? Dorms, papers and frat parties will still be there next year.

Gap years can be an incredible experience, providing an opportunity to grow and learn in ways you otherwise never would.

And with their rising popularity, they may no longer be an experience only reserved for people with big bank accounts.

Explore your options, and you could end up finding a way to explore the world.

Your Turn: What do you think about gap years?

Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.