City Year Little Rock’s AmeriCorps members arrived in the thick of the Arkansas summer. But they didn’t let the nearly 100-degree heat and overpowering humidity stop them. Instead, they eagerly dove right in, helping teachers at our four Little Rock School District partner schools prepare their classrooms and lesson plans for the upcoming academic year.
Over the next 11 months, this dedicated group of 18- to 25-year-olds will put in long hours, often starting at 7 a.m. and going until 6 p.m., to help Central Arkansas students reach their full potential. As student success coaches, they provide intensive whole-class support, small group sessions, one-on-one tutoring and before- and after-school programming. Throughout their “Year of Service,” they will join their fellow AmeriCorps members for professional development training, tackling issues from Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity and Belonging (DEIB) strategies to practical problem-solving. They’ll also participate in regular learning opportunities to gain critical skills, such as conflict resolution, that would allow them to excel in their current work and later careers.
For far too long, gap year programs have been the subject of unfair stigma or stereotypes. In some instances, critics have portrayed them as unattainable luxuries for young people to press pause on life and travel the world. Or worse, they’ve painted them as potential roadblocks to individuals’ future academic or professional endeavors. But research consistently shows that’s simply not true.
With each incoming class of AmeriCorps members, City Year Little Rock demonstrates the substantial benefits gap years provide—not only for those who participate but for the Arkansas employers who desperately need a pool of capable and ready workers. Evidence reaffirms that gap years enhance individuals’ career readiness and, by extension, help our state build a stronger workforce.
Many colleges, including Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Princeton, now recognize the value of gap year programs and proactively promote them, even deferring admission for those who pursue them. That may be because research indicates those same students will excel when enrolled. A report from the Gap Year Association found that 90 percent of students who take time off after high school enroll in a four-year institution within one year of finishing their breaks. These individuals receive higher GPAs and have better graduation rates, completing their degrees in four years or less compared to the national average of six.
Beyond academics, gap year programs allow young adults to obtain in-demand skills. Consider City Year as an example. According to a recent alumni survey, nine out of 10 AmeriCorps members said their Year of Service helped them become more adept problem-solvers and develop the ability to interact with individuals of diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps members must learn to thrive in challenging environments and do it as part of a team. After their Year of Service, they report being stronger communicators and relationship builders. They can also effectively manage their time, a key advantage in a fast-paced workforce.
The benefits of gap year programs are clear. Yet many still wonder, “Is the investment really worth it?” Granted, some programs can come with a hefty price tag. Others, such as City Year, offer resources to offset potential costs, such as biweekly stipends, pre-planned time off, education scholarships, health insurance and localized benefits. All provide the opportunity for young adults to pursue life-changing experiences that will help them advance in their careers. Again, look to City Year. Nearly half of AmeriCorps members remain in the communities where they served. Even out of the red jacket, they continue contributing to the local workforce and economy in many professions, whether at a local business or in the technology and health sectors.
Taking a gap year may offer a break between high school and college or that next step. But it’s not a halt from an individual’s personal and professional growth. Completing a gap year is a decision that sets young adults and our future workforce up for lasting success. And that’s something we should encourage, especially in today’s tight labor market.
Editor’s note: Jennifer Cobb is senior vice president and executive director of City Year Little Rock, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students and schools succeed. For more information, visit cityyear.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.