When students take a gap year, they typically take a semester or year off between high school and college in order to take advantage of experiential learning. While extraordinary opportunities may be awaiting you, you may struggle to think of ways to pay for the experience.
If that’s the case, there are options that may help you pay for your gap year — beyond funding the costs out of pocket. Continue reading for more information on options you may want to consider should you find yourself in need of help funding your non-classroom experience.
Gap Year, Explained
First of all, what is a gap year and why do people take them?
Students may choose to take a semester or year off with the goal of getting a break from academics and prior to diving into postsecondary education. Students may choose to complete an internship, travel, study on their own, volunteer, or pursue other interests. Some students choose to pursue a gap year with the intention of discovering what it is that they want to major in or the career path they’d like to pursue.
Many students report a developed self- and cultural awareness, increased independence, and confidence after taking a gap year.
Students may choose to apply to colleges and universities during their senior year (and let colleges know of their plans to take a gap year), during their gap year or after they’ve completed their gap year. Waiting until later often gives them the advantage of being able to report on what they’ve learned during their time away from academics.
In some instances, a gap year may also be something for a student to do after college or in-between college and post-graduate study.
Planning Out Your Gap Year
It’s important to plan out your gap year ahead of time so you have a plan for how you’ll spend your time. It can be easy to waste time when you break from a traditional schedule. Having a plan ensures that you’ll have a better chance of achieving your goals — you might even curb expenses as well.
It may be helpful to break your plan down into measurable goals. For example, if you plan to travel, write down where you’d like to be on specific dates so you don’t miss any of your intended milestones. It’s also a good idea to budget for your gap year ahead of time so you know how much it will cost and the amount you’ll need per week or month to live on.
Options for Financing Your Gap Year
You can always finance your gap year with cash you or your parents have saved or with money from a well-meaning grandparent. However, not everyone has cash bankrolling their gap year. Let’s take a look at a few ways you may want to consider financing your gap year.
Gap Year Scholarship or Grant
A private entity may offer you a gap year grant or scholarship. A scholarship is free money that you don’t have to pay back that can come from a wide variety of entities, including clubs, organizations, foundations, charities, businesses, the government and individuals. It’s possible to find scholarships specifically for gap years, particularly for students who want to volunteer, improve certain skills, volunteer, develop a talent, or complete another type of experiential learning.
Grants are also a form of financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. Grants may also help you fund your gap year without having to repay the money. However, it’s important to check into the fine print on both college grants and scholarships to ensure that you fit the criteria. (Some scholarships and grants require you to get college credit in order to qualify.)
529 Account or College Savings
If you or your parents have college savings set aside in a brokerage account, savings or checking account, or a certificate of deposit (CD), you may want to use this money to pay for gap year expenses.
A 529 plan is an investment account that offers investment opportunities and tax advantages when used to pay for qualified education expenses. You may take withdrawals from a 529 plan to pay for qualified educational expenses for tuition, room, board, fees, books, equipment for classes, and other supplies at an accredited institution. If you meet these requirements, you won’t pay federal income tax.
However, if you spend the money on an expense that doesn’t qualify as a higher education cost (such as your plane ticket to go overseas). Be careful when using your 529 savings unless you’re attending a specific program through an accredited institution.
Find a Paid Internship or Part-Time Job
Obtaining a paid internship or part-time job can help you float some or all of the expenses of a gap year. For example, if you plan to spend your year volunteering at soup kitchens throughout a major city, a part-time job may help you pay for transportation to get there and also other living expenses. On the other hand, if you intend to use your gap year to gain work experience to discover your career goals, a paid internship may help you take care of all of your living expenses.
Recommended: Jobs to Help Pay for School Expenses
Apply for Financial Aid
Financial aid can refer to a wide range of types of money to pay for credits at college or career school.
Some gap year programs offer college credit, so you may be able to apply for federal financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA can give you access to grants, federal student loans, and other opportunities.
While you may have never had any intention of taking college credit during a gap year (you may feel that it defeats the purpose of a gap year!) but taking a college-credit class or two as part of your experience or doing a credit-based gap year program may help cover some of your costs.
Taking out a personal loan involves borrowing money from a bank, online lender, or credit union that you repay in fixed installments. Personal loans are not backed by collateral, which also means they are called unsecured loans. (Secured loans, on the other hand, are backed by collateral, such as a house.) Personal loans often carry higher interest rates than some other types of loans. It may be difficult for someone to get a personal loan without a cosigner if they don’t have a long history of building credit.
It’s a good idea to be careful about taking out a personal loan due to these higher interest rates and having to bring a cosigner on board. That cosigner could end up paying for your loan if you default on the loan and ultimately, it could affect both of your credit scores.
Using Private Student Loans to Finance Gap Year
Private student loans are student loans that come from a bank, credit union, or other private lender. You probably cannot use private student loans to finance your time off from school if you plan to backpack across Europe, but if you do take a few classes as part of a gap year program, you may be able to use private loans to cover your costs. Check with lenders about their requirements before you apply and whether or not a particular program will qualify.
A gap year can help “gappers” explore career goals, develop confidence, volunteer, and more. If you’re thinking carefully about a gap year, you also might be worried about the cost of taking that time off. Consider putting together a list of costs, goals, and plans so you can make sure that your gap year goes off without a hitch. From there, you can start planning how you’ll cover your expenses during your time away from the classroom.
Finally, don’t forget that you can always put together a combination of sources of funding. For example, you can pay for your gap year with a combination of scholarships, money saved, and internship money.
3 Student Loan Tips
- Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.
- Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.
- It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.
How much should I budget for a gap year?
The amount you should budget for a gap year depends on your personal circumstances. It also depends on what you plan to do. Living at home with your parents and volunteering in your community will likely cost less than hopping on a plane and spending a year abroad. No matter what your plan, it’s best to get an estimate of your expenses ahead of time and then use that as a basis for your budget throughout your gap year.
How can I get funding for a gap year?
There are many ways to get funding for a gap year. Depending on your situation and circumstances, you may consider tapping into scholarships, grants, a 529 account, college savings, through a paid internship or part-time job, financial aid, personal loans or private student loans. There’s no single way to fund your gap year, and you may also want to consider a combination of different sources to pay for it.
How long should a gap year be?
A gap year can be any length of time, but they typically last between two weeks and one year.
Photo credit: iStock/Pekic
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