COVID-19 has drastically upended Generation Z's college experience. No walks across the quad, no late-night dorm room gab sessions. Gone are fraternity and sorority parties or cramming for exams with pals at the library. Students' homes have become their campus as they log on to classes from personal devices, even as their parents continue to pay a hefty tuition.
An increasing number of these young adults—the oldest are 23 this year—are rethinking how they want to spend this time, opting for a "gap experience," a period of time away from school.
Whether this voluntary leave of absence lasts for a semester or for a year, high-school graduates and college students are using the time to rethink career options and decisions, said Casey Welch. He is CEO of Tallo, a platform that helps Generation Z find scholarships and university and job opportunities.
"Traditionally when we thought of a gap year, [it was] 'I'm going to take a year off. I'm going to travel. I'm going to figure things out,' " Welch said. But members of Generation Z are "viewing the gap year as very different than the stereotype."
For some, it's a way to get a jump on their careers rather than a simple hitting of the pause button on school.
"They're saying, 'I'm taking a year off and getting experience at a Fortune 500 company' " while earning money and taking classes part time. They are looking at employers they had not previously considered, such as Walmart, Chick-fil-A and McDonald's, that offer tuition reimbursement, Welch said.
Katherine Stievater, founder and chief executive officer of Gap Year Solutions in the Boston area, has seen an uptick in interest in recent years, and she attributes the surge in 2020 to the pandemic.
"Many estimates suggest the number of high-school seniors deferring the start of college and taking a gap year has increased three to four times compared to before the pandemic. One difference is that it is not just high-school graduates—it is also college students taking a year off, since they don't want to take classes online," she said. In fact, at Pennsylvania State University, the number of first-year students taking a gap year in fall 2020 increased 300 percent from about 50 students to around 200 students, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in October.
Stievater said one of her clients who is a dancer took a gap year to work part time in a dance studio to learn the business side of her passion. Others have worked on political campaigns, started their own companies, built apps, created or worked on fundraisers, and served as online tutors.
A gap experience also can offer a chance to explore areas for future study. While most in-person internships have been halted, Stievater noted that there are domestic and international online opportunities. One client interned at an investment bank to test an interest in a finance career. Other online internships might involve working in social media, participating in research projects or assisting startup companies.
Welch said some young adults are taking a break to earn credentials or certifications to make themselves more employable, while others are rethinking intended career paths in fields the pandemic has impacted, such as nursing and hospitality. One gap program, Scotland-based Student Ventures, purports to offer a fully online "venture semester" and "venture year" that guides students, usually working in teams, from developing a product idea to taking the product to market.
However it's experienced, a break after high school or during or after college or graduate school "is a state of mind," career counselor Marianne Green says on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website. It can be anything "from working on a dude ranch to working in a local store." People often are involved in more than one activity during the gap year, the BLS noted, such as participating in a service program and taking an online class in a subject that piques their interest.
Some spend the gap year working in jobs that have nothing to do with their college major. Penn State graduate Robert "Jake" Smeal graduated in 2020 with a 3.95 grade point average (GPA) and a double major in management and political science. He is taking a gap year to live at home, work locally to save money and prepare to attend law school in fall 2021.
Other young adults are using the time to contribute to causes they believe in. The Peace Corps, long a choice for young adults in their mid-20s wanting to work for a cause and travel internationally, had to evacuate more than 7,000 volunteers from locations around the world because of COVID-19. A domestic gap year program is an alternative; many have integrated issues such as immigration, social justice, diversity, environmental sustainability and the global climate.
Marion Taylor is owner and advisor of Taylor the Gap, a gap year consulting service in Boulder, Colo. The majority of her clients, who are 17 to 22 years old, are pivoting to smaller and lesser-known domestic programs as some international programs remain shuttered. One student Taylor worked with served as an online contact tracer in New Mexico during the spring. Others are building trails in national parks, restoring historic buildings and working on global climate issues, she said.
There is a fee to participate in various gap year programs. Additionally, students are often not paid and typically do not receive college credit for participating in the programs. The experience, though, can stand in for those students may have had on campus, such as managing a budget, learning a language or learning how to do laundry, Taylor said. It's also an opportunity to develop soft skills such as initiative, teamwork and leadership. A young adult in a wilderness program, for example, might be tasked with reading a map to lead a group over mountains to a destination and dealing with the outcome.
"Oftentimes, for the first time in their lives, students have to take charge of their own learning as opposed to be a passive learner taking notes in class," Taylor said. "Employers can teach the hard skills, but the soft skills are the employee skills employers really want."
Stievater thinks a gap year experience makes students more mature.
"They tend to be more curious, better problem solvers and more adaptable, which are traits sought after by employers and which also help them perform better in college and earn higher GPAs," she said. "Employers are attracted to students who have learned how to be more independent and think outside the box."