Gap Year Programs and College Credit: Tips for Maximizing Time and Money

This article originally appeared in the Independent Educational Consultants Association August/September 2017 Insights Newsletter.

By now independent educational consultants (IECs) are well aware of the common reasons students take a gap year before starting college: recovering from academic burnout, desiring self-discovery, and cultivating a specific skill set, to name a few. Even though there are literally thousands of gap year programs that foster personal and professional development, the complicated process of choosing a program centers on aligning the program with the student’s post-gap year academic plans. Below are some tips to help college admission consultants navigate the issue of students earning college credit prior to officially starting their degree program.

gap year college credit

Tip #1: Understand institutional policies on deferring admission

A student considering a gap year should complete the college application process alongside their non-gap year peers. As more institutions recognize the benefits of the gap year, some admissions officers are encouraging gap year participants to defer admission. Still, there are a fair amount of institutions that require students to reapply for admission (University of California and California State University systems). Depending on the school, re-applying can mean anything from submitting a brief form to completing the entire application process again in order to be considered for grants, merit scholarships, and other types of financial aid.

It is best to communicate directly with the assigned admissions officer to inquire as to how gap year participants should officially notify their chosen college of their plans. Some schools even have a designated admissions officer who works specifically with the gap year population. Students should find out early in the process which admissions officers handle gap year students (if any) and what the specific deferral policies are for gap year students.

Tip #2 Determine if earning credit is necessary

Gap year participation by U.S. students has skyrocketed in the last decade. Increasingly, organized programs are offering college credit for participants. Since financing a gap year remains one of the biggest obstacles for interested students, federal financial aid in the form of loans has recently become available for a limited number of programs.  This is made possible if the program has secured a school of record, an accredited institution that awards course credit to participants on independent educational programs.

The opportunity to earn college credit on a gap year program is complicated. While this is a game-changer for students who are eligible for financial aid, earning credit from a different school can sometimes mean students may be required to reapply as a transfer applicant. Additionally, courses taken for credit may not be accepted if there is no articulation agreement in place between the two institutions. Additionally, those students who choose a gap year program because of the possibility of earning college credit should be cautioned to manage their expectations. Despite the gap year phenomenon gaining momentum, it is unlikely gap year participants would end up graduating early or successfully waiving general education courses due to the credit they earn on a pre-college gap year program.

Tip 3: Encourage learning for the sake of learning

From a motivation perspective, students should not base their gap year decisions solely on the possibility of earning college credit. Sarah Dib, International Studies Director of CIEE Global Navigator High School Abroad, encourages students to “treat the gap year as an opportunity to explore the world and learn about themselves.” If a program does offer college credit (and the selected college accepts it), this is a value added component of the program, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the principal reason for choosing it.

Similar to the college application process, students should consider their personal, educational, and professional goals when considering a gap year program. Through powerful experiential learning, gap year students can break out of their comfort zone while exploring the intersection of their academic and personal interests.

Final Thoughts

IECs are quickly taking on expanded advising roles requiring deep knowledge of gap year programs including international volunteering, work exchange and internships, organized adventure travel, skill-building courses, and language studies abroad. Dedicated gap year counselors are a growing specialty among IECs, and as the number of students needing a break from the rigors of traditional academia increases, we must strike a delicate balance between navigating the bureaucracy of higher education and truly understanding the student’s needs and interests.