Dawn DiPeri

by Dawn DiPeri

The American Council on Education surveyed 2,000 college students in April 2020 and found that 20% of them were unclear about their plans for the 2020/2021 school year. Instead of returning to campus, several of these students embarked on a gap year.

The gap year is a common practice in Europe, but since the pandemic it has become a popular choice for college students all over the world. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gap year as “a period, typically an academic year, taken by a student as a break between secondary school and higher education.” Although students usually take a gap year before embarking on a post-secondary education, this year many are also taking a break between the years of their undergraduate degree. 

Although the school year has officially started, students who have chosen to stay home for the academic year are still looking for valuable experiences to fill their time meaningfully. They may choose to enroll in non-degree courses, micro-learning, and credentialing programs. Or they may decide to travel, volunteer, or seek employment. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies that primarily offer summer internships are now extending them or offering internship programs for the entire school year. College students have a wealth of options at their disposal and this article outlines several resources to assist in their search.

In this article we will discuss:

  • College and university offerings
  • Local travel ideas
  • Regional volunteer opportunities

College/university offerings

Students may have been accepted to a university for fall, but they do not have to be limited to taking classes at that institution. In fact, there are several institutions that offer online degree and non-degree courses in a variety of topics. Harvard Extension School, for example, offers:

  • Economics
  • Foreign language
  • Global citizenship
  • Literature and writing
  • Math and computer science
  • Meaning and existence
  • Medicine and health
  • Psychology and neuroscience

They also have undergraduate certificate programs in:

  • Coding
  • Intro to web development
  • Professional communications
  • Social justice

Additionally, all Harvard courses are under $1,000 and the Spring registration period starts in November. To participate in the Academic Gap Year at Harvard Extension School, you simply enroll in courses—no application required. 

Gap-friendly colleges have high graduation rates (according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), and return on investment (according to College Scorecard data). A gap-year-friendly college is one that offers deferment and a multitude of programs either online, in person, or abroad. But be careful when choosing to embark on a gap year.  Some universities will not allow students to take courses at another institution while they are being deferred at the one in which they are currently enrolled. 

According to ValueColleges.com, The top 10 gap year colleges are:

  • Princeton
  • Harvard
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • MIT
  • Yale
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • College of William & Mary
  • Harvey Mudd College
  • Middlebury College
  • Beloit College

Travel ideas

Some students opt to travel abroad. However, because of COVID-19 and fear of a second wave, international travel may not be ideal. Luckily, there are some home-based options for college students. Check out an example:

  • High Mountain Institute, according to the website HMI, offers outdoor adventure that combines a service component linked to preservation and the environment. Students learn leadership skills and  autonomy, and get to explore places in nature that truly transform their perspective on the outdoors. Gap-year participants can choose to enroll in Colorado or Peru. HMI takes care to prevent the spread and transmission of COVID-19 by quarantining their 40-plus students for 2 weeks before the semester starts, testing each one of them for COVID, and then separating them into cohorts of 9-10 students. Additionally, all students receive a second COVID test halfway through their expedition.

Volunteer Opportunities

College students can choose from a wealth of opportunities to volunteer in person or online, and many of these options look great on their resumes. Volunteering can take the form of a more structured program like Outward Bound or AmeriCorps or it can come about in a more organic way. Young adults should look inward and think about what interests them and what skills they may have to share, and find a way to help others by signing up for any number of opportunities within their community or online.

  • Americorps, is a residential program for young adults, is committed to service and volunteerism. Students can embark on a service journey through a government agency that is a safe alternative to the Peace Corp. Americorps offers the following 3 options:
  • Traditional Americorps allows young adults to partner with local charities so they can complete hands-on projects in a specific area of the country.
  • FEMA Corps prepares young adults to serve under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and work on programs tailored to disaster preparedness and recovery.
  • Corps membership allows young adults to get personal and professional development experience in a team. There are both member options and team-leader positions in which gap year participants can lead a team of 8-10 Corps members.

Visiting the Gap Year Association site can help students decide what kind of program is of interest to them and weigh the costs, logistics and viability. Their website also publishes data on gap-year participant outcomes which you can see here.

Here is a list of some gap-year programs located in the United States, according to the Gap Year Association Website:


Young people have abundant opportunities to pursue during a gap year. Beyond volunteering and learning new skills, college students can work and also apply to internships. Some young adults may help take care of their family or a loved one, and even juggle a multitude of things. Whatever they choose, the important thing is for them to reflect, learn and translate their knowledge. They can do this in a way that not only will add to their resume but also build their character, expand their global worldview, and teach them life skills they will need beyond the college classroom. Students should not be forced to return to campus this Spring if they don’t feel safe. Through small in-person and online transformative learning experiences, students can return to college next year with a newfound understanding of their strengths and goals, and perhaps become even more intrinsically motivated to succeed at college and beyond. 

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