FAFSA Delays, College Admissions & Gap Years on the Rise

Applying to college in a typical year is already stressful. But in 2024, with FAFSA's application changes and technical errors resulting in unprecedented delays in families finding out what federal financial aid they may receive (and as a result, potentially state and school-based aid as well), this college cycle has been unrelenting.

Additionally, with colleges and universities receiving record-level applications - estimates from Business Insider suggest a 30% increase since 2019 - college acceptances are less and less certain. As colleges have not expanded their class sizes to address this growing demand, the already competitive application process has become even moreso, with acceptance rates lower than ever. 

Without a satisfactory financial or college offer, high school seniors around the country are approaching their graduations still wondering where they are headed this fall … and it's no surprise that the gap year conversation is on the rise for the graduating class of 2024.

If you are a high school senior (or parent of one) and considering a  gap year, here are 5 things you need to know:

1.  It is not too late to take a gap year.

Gap year programs are still accepting applications for the 2024-2025 year, and will continue to do so as long as they have space available as well as a sufficient timeline for students to manage logistics such as passports, immunizations, or housing. It's also important to point out that the gap year and college application processes are quite different. Whereas colleges are selecting only the “best possible” applicants into their institutions, gap year programs overwhelmingly prioritize student interest and engagement. 

What does that mean for you, the applicant? It means that if you submit a thoughtful application to a gap year program that is well-suited to your interests and abilities, it is very likely that you will be accepted.

2.  A well-planned gap year won't break the bank.

There are many budgeting strategies and resources to support a productive and meaningful gap year. Always work within your own budget. Ask gap year programs if they offer financial aid. Explore gap year programs that are 529 eligible. Live at home and work. Get a destination seasonal job. Network with family and friends for housing or an internship, or both. Volunteer. Travel low-cost through work exchange options. As a graduation gift, ask your friends and family to contribute to your gap year fund.

Depending on gappers' goals, locations, activities and resources, gap year budgets can range from $3,000 to $30,000. Even that upper end is less than a year at most colleges.

3.  A gap year will make you a stronger college candidate and student.

As Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, was quoted recently, “My worry is that ... (students) see college as the culmination and the next step rather than an opportunity to explore and grow and be wrong. A gap year gets them out of the mindset and gives them a chance to do something different than the 12 (years) that preceded it and the four years ahead. I wish more students would take a gap year.”

An intentional gap year will develop a student's maturity, confidence, perspective, resilience and success, in college and beyond. Research on the benefits of a gap year is ongoing, but past studies have shown that gappers are more likely to graduate college in 4 years, and are also achieving higher GPAs.

4.  You are not alone.

It's estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 students gap each year, so while you may be the only one in your graduating class to pursue a gap year, you will soon find yourself in great company. Thousands and thousands of U.S. students pursue gap time each year, with even greater numbers hailing from the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Did you know that at Harvard University, 90-130 students defer every year?

Follow inspiring gap year spokespeople and programs on social media - in addition to feeling more connected, you will also hear about opportunities, alumni, webinars, and scholarships. And, make sure that your first program (most likely in the fall) is with a group - as your college-bound friends will have community, so should you.

5. Your gap year options are (almost) limitless. 

For most, this is the best part: getting to actually dream about what you can do and where you can go on your gap year! If you can identify some interests and goals, there are very likely ways to achieve them. Depending on your time and resources, you may also be able to engage in 2 or more experiences.

  • Performing & fine arts programs for gappers who want to learn, create, teach or perform in one or more disciplines.
  • Outdoor experiences for those who want to backpack, climb, surf, sail, ski or gain wilderness medicine certifications.
  • Volunteer options in education, public health, environmental and wildlife conservation, disaster relief and more.
  • Internships for those interested in career exposure in business, engineering, human rights, media, medicine, sports marketing, technology, and more.
  • Paid work at home, or in a seasonal destination.
  • Work exchange options like au pairing in Spain, picking olives in Greece or working on a ranch in Australia.
  • Travel options on nearly every continent for students interested in cultural or language immersion.

It has, understandably, been a frustrating and disappointing college admissions season for students around the country. If you are still waiting to hear about your financial offers, or are feeling disappointed in your college acceptances, or remain undecided about your plans following graduation, it's time to seek out experts - like J2Guides - who can help you understand the breadth of your gap year options!

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