Crunching the numbers for your gap year

By Savannah Sicurella, University of Georgia

When Marla Ebert, now a career consultant in the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, opted to take a gap year before beginning a master’s program in higher education, she approached the decision with specific criteria in mind: she wanted a “well-rounded” experience to prepare her for the master’s program, to keep her attuned to the “student mindset” and to support her financially.

Moving from the rote and routine of undergraduate panic to a full-time paid position as a traveling chapter consultantfor her former sorority, Ebert found herself fulfilled. Though a change from the typical educational track, the gap year she spent working with collegiate sorority chapters cemented her interest in pursuing higher education as a career path and allowed her to save money for the master’s program.

The predisposition held by students to go “lock-step” into college or the workforce after graduating can cause extreme burnout, said Karl Haigler, a longtime education professional and former Director of Adult Educationin the U.S. Department of Education. Though viewed as more of a cultural taboo in the United States, a “viable” and increasingly accepted alternative to formal schooling is pursuing a gap year.

A gap year, while not one-size-fits all, generally denotes taking time off from schooling to pursue other personal or professional development experiences. There are four categories of gap year experiences as defined by the Gap Year Association: career-exploration, paid work, free-reigned traveling and community service.

Though one of the more commonly-held concerns associated with taking a gap-year is the fear of “losing your cohort,” Ebert said, even more so is the cost — particularly with work- and service-based programs.

The financial obligation of taking a gap year extends beyond purchasing a plane ticket: most service-based gap year programs require participatory and relocation fees, room and board costs, health insurance and further living expenses.

Ebert “was lucky” enough to step directly into a paid position with minimal personal expenses, but she understands the financial implications of a gap year are often the trickiest part of determining whether you should pursue one.

Prior to accepting the position, Ebert extensively researched the position’s salary, calculated costs of living and spoke with past traveling consultants to determine the periods during which she would anticipate living “month-to-month with expenses.”

Her understanding of where the position would place her financially paid off — Ebert managed to save money to put towards further education and rarely worried about her next paycheck.

Haigler said students must consider planning a gap year as carefully as going to college. A wealth of programs with varying costs exist, and it’s up to the student to determine which one matches their capability and if they can work to pay for it themselves, Haigler said.

From a parental perspective, Haigler, whose son Adam participated in two gap year programs prior to beginning his college career, found the gap year was less financially exacting, would “bet a dime and a donut that what you do during a gap year is going to be cheaper than a year of college.”

“There are a lot of options out there, and unfortunately a lot of people say that if you take a gap year, that it’s going to cost a lot of money — that only people with means can take gap years,” Haigler said. “That’s not necessarily the case.”

Savannah Sicurella is a journalism major in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.


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