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Colleges increasingly support the idea of students taking a year out of the classroom between high school and college. Most agree that gap years are great for student outcomes. Harvard’s own admission’s team wrote at length about the benefits of gap years, stating that, “The results have been uniformly positive. . . students who had taken a year off found the experience ‘so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.’” They even alluded to the fact that gap years contribute directly to their 97% graduation rate.

Despite the benefits of a gap year, there are still a lot of obstacles for students to step away before entering college. First, there are multiple stakeholders who need to be on board. The student, parents, sometimes grandparents, and the high school counselor all have to be open to the conversation. For many families, college has been the goal since birth, so the idea of postponing that goal is a big ask. Second, tuition is increasing to the point where every dollar spent needs to contribute to a college degree, and anything else is a detour. Many students come from communities that think that college deferral is reserved for the privileged or the burnouts, pressuring students to stay the traditional course.

Verto, along with gap year providers, has developed innovative ways to make practical, introspective, hands-on experience a core part of college. By offering college credit, accepting 529 savings plans, and offering FAFSA, Verto and our counterparts are making intentional time outside of the classroom a more realistic option for more students.

The last barrier for these students is being able to matriculate into a university and graduate in four years. This is where college admission offices throw a curveball. The deferral conversation with many admissions offices typically ends with, “We love gap years! Feel free to defer for a year, as long as you’re not pursuing outside credit. Then we’ll see you on campus in twelve months for your freshman year.” The gap year suddenly adds time and money to the college equation.

Colleges often claim that this deferral rule is to protect the academic integrity of the degree that they provide. If you dive deeper, there are only two explanations for this limitation:

  1. These colleges are telling the truth about their belief in their unique brand of educational quality. If so, they are only perpetuating academic “elitism” by suggesting that they are the only path to a quality education. This reputation-based college education is exactly what led to wealthy families gaming the system and breaking the law to gain access to elite schools for their children. By positioning themselves as the highest form of education, these schools are putting their reputation and endowment above students’ institutional fit and positive impact on the world.
  2. These colleges are not telling the truth, and they are maximizing students’ ability and willingness to pay them for a degree. In this case, colleges won’t allow outside credit because they want to keep you on campus for eight semesters (or more) of tuition.

This not-for-credit deferral policy prevents under-represented students from taking advantage of all of the gap year benefits that admissions offices tout. College is already one of the largest investments a family can make, and higher education has done a phenomenal job of convincing everyone that it’s worth it. If college is plan A, families often don’t have enough money or emotional bandwidth left for anything else.

This policy also completely disregards the purpose of accreditation. College accreditation means that any accredited program or institution has been vetted, and given a stamp of approval by the same body as other colleges. The student experience, learning objectives, lesson plans, and outcomes have all been granted approval and deemed equally valuable. Still, many colleges force gap year students with any college credit to enter as transfer students, rather than freshmen, forfeiting their scholarships. Refusing to accept identical credits just because of how and when a student is entering an institution can only harm that student. It forces students to choose one path, and one method of teaching.

Not all students learn the same way, and not all eighteen-year-olds are ready to commit to the next 4+ years of their lives. Current graduation rates show that colleges are not only harming students by forcing a square peg into a round hole, but they are doing themselves a disservice too. This is a strong argument for theory two, that colleges are fine as long as students continue paying tuition for five or six years while figuring out what they want to do.

When will we develop an education that is student centric, not school centric? We need more colleges to say “What is best for the student?”, not “What is best for our bottom line?”. Verto is proud to work with colleges that understand that by giving students room to grow, they are more likely to have adults arrive on campus ready to learn. We encourage every student looking to take a gap year, or any non-linear path to a college degree, to advocate for themselves and remind schools to put students first, always. If you need advice or back up, for Verto or any program, reach out and we’d be happy to help Ben@VertoEducation.org.