Does a Gap Year Affect Financial Aid?

Will Taking a Year Off Hurt Your Financial Situation?

The media has been all abuzz lately with the astonishing news that Malia Obama will take a gap year between graduating from her elite prep school in Washington and beginning her studies at Harvard University. While it can be easy to imagine that the daughter of a sitting president would not want to begin her freshman year surrounded by a barrage of publicity, there are many other reasons that students choose to delay the start of their college careers.

Some students are simply not ready for the college experience, or they may want to explore the world a little more before settling into the college routine. Others use the opportunity to earn money to help pay down some of the costs of a college education. Although Malia probably does not have to take the financial aspects of this decision into consideration, it can be a concern for other students. Here are a few strategies to follow when thinking about taking a gap year before attending college:

  • It’s not just a year off: This should not be looked at as just taking a year to goof off and party before going to college. Potential colleges will not look favorably upon that, and your parents probably won’t appreciate it either. It should instead be looked at as a way of further refining your college and career choices. Find a program or an opportunity which really allows you to explore and find out who you are and who you want to be.
  • Apply first and then request a deferral: Most students find it easier to apply to college while still in high school as there is a huge support system in place for this process. You have easier access to the necessary letters of recommendation, transcripts, and testing opportunities, and also have teachers and counselors who can help you with your application. It can be difficult to achieve all of this on your own, and may be even more cumbersome if you decide to travel during your gap year. Once accepted, send a letter requesting a deferral and outlining your plans for your gap year before your first tuition payment is due.
  • Ask if you can get credit for your activities: Some colleges will grant credit for activities performed during a gap year, particularly if they are of an educational nature. Talk to the admissions department, explain what you plan on doing, and find out if credit might be available. This could cut down on the number of classes you will eventually have to take at this college.
  • Watch for financial aid consequences: Most forms of financial aid require a student to be actively enrolled in a degree granting program. Federal financial aid can be deferred until the time the student starts taking classes, but be aware that some colleges might not have institutional grants or scholarships available after a gap year. Check with your specific college to determine their procedures for gap year students. Learn more from the American Gap Association, and find out about possible gap year scholarships and grants.
  • Earning money can be good and bad: While it might seem like taking a year to earn a substantial amount of money to help pay for college costs is a good idea, remember that you will still have to complete a FAFSA before starting your college classes. This additional income could inflate the amount of money you will be expected to contribute, and might decrease your eligibility for financial aid.
  • Stay in touch: If you have been accepted to a college, be sure to stay in touch with them as you are considered part of their student body. Respond to their mailings and make sure you will be ready to join the freshman class once your gap year experience is completed.
  • Be prepared to explain the gap down the road: Future employers may look at the timeframes between your high school and college graduations and wonder about the gap. Be prepared to explain what you did during your gap year, and show how that experience can actually make you a better employee.