Higher Ed Marketing in the Gap Year

With enrollment in gap year programs up 23% since 2015, if your institution is overlooking this trend, then you may be missing a key contingent of prospective students. While the idea of a “year off” between high school and college is not new, what’s different is the breadth of students the idea is attracting. An investigative report with Katie Couric finds that the gap year is “not just for rich kids anymore.”

A USA Today article in 2008 foretold the growing acceptance—even embracing—of the gap year concept, as leaders identified the potential of the movement. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at that time for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said admissions counselors were seeing that "if properly vetted, these opportunities could actually help students succeed in college." Around that time, Princeton University formalized a “bridge year” program. Harvard University has been encouraging the practice “for decades” according to The New York Times.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year—and central to Katie Couric’s report—has made it her life’s mission not just to make gap years more common, but also to make them more accessible. With $10 million in fundraising, her organization can provide participant support, offering a “need-blind” admissions policy. Global Citizen Year is one of a plethora of organizations offering structured programs. A recent booklet from New Trier Township High School District identifies more than 75 organizations that offer formal programs emphasizing humanitarian service, adventure, and cross-cultural experience.

Students participating in gap year programs have described themselves—prior to the gap year—as “stuck,” or lacking purpose, or aimlessly running an “academic racetrack.”

Both gap year participants and leaders in higher education testify that students returning from a gap year are more mature in their preparation for college and have a greater sense of purpose about their education. This translates to higher graduation rates, too. According to Global Citizen Year, while one-third of college freshmen don’t come back for a second year, 94 percent of their alums are on track to graduate in four years or less.

An article in Liason, “Gap Year: Keep them engaged and committed” outlines some important marketing principles for reaching gap year students.

Here are some practical ideas for how you might put these principles into practice:

  • Don’t let students fall off your radar. Maintain data on high school students you know are taking a gap year (both in your database and counselor's notes). If you have a significant number of prospective students in a gap year, engage students through a targeted print and e-mail campaign. If it’s a smaller number of students, this allows for a personal touch—notes and phone calls—from counselors.

  • Be there when they’re looking for you. Since you likely won’t have a complete list of gap year students, your school's website becomes even more important. A microsite devoted to the gap year is a good idea. This would include campus visit opportunities, financial aid, and more—all geared toward a gap year student, rather than a high school junior or senior.

  • Make the most of it. Highlight current students who took a gap year. Give them opportunities to share via blog post or video about how they integrated into the campus after a year off, as well as what they gained from their time away from school. Listen—and let’s all learn from their experience.