Students and parents regularly ask whether students can earn college credit by participating in Thinking Beyond Borders gap year programs. Unfortunately, the answer is no (with one exception; see below). It’s not that our programs aren’t rigorous learning opportunities. Rather, it’s that earning college credit for a gap year program can be risky.
There are many great reasons to take a gap year. Most importantly, it is a fantastic investment to ensure students are ready to take advantage of their college careers. But, if you’re looking to the gap year as an alternative way to earn college credit, you’ll likely be disappointed.
For both students and parents, earning college credit during a gap year is enticing. In theory, your gap year could count toward your degree, reduce the cost of college, and make it possible to use financial aid to pay for your gap year program.
The problem is that the vast majority of colleges don’t want students to earn credit during their gap year. When students accept admission and then defer their enrollment, they are making an agreement with their college. The school is agreeing to hold that spot on campus and not offer it to someone else. But, the student is agreeing to come back and be a full member of the student body after their gap year.
This is a risky proposition for colleges. While it often seems college admissions officers hold all the power in the application process, the reality is much more complicated. Admissions officers work hard to create a unique campus culture and community that meets the school’s mission. They consider each applicant carefully, balancing a wide variety of factors that make up the student body, from ensuring a diversity of talents and interests, to geographic and ethnic diversity, to financial aid needs. Once a student has been offered admission and accepted, the college is expecting her to bring her talents and passions to campus.
Generally, admissions officers know that gap years help students find the purpose and direction they need to take advantage of what college has to offer (check out TBB board member and former Middlebury College Dean of Admissions Bob Clagget’s research in the NYTimes). But, these same admissions officers also have a fear – that during a gap year, students might decide not come to their campus. They generally don’t want students to earn credit from another college for fear they’ll go to that other school (to offer credit, gap year programs require you to enroll in their partner college; the credits you earn are from a college, not your gap year program).
So, what can happen if you earn college credit from your gap year? Here’s a range of the outcomes, from best to worst:
- Your college accepts all of the credits. — This is pretty rare. This usually happens if your college happens to be the one that partners with your specific gap year program. TBB has an arrangement like this with Franklin & Marshall College for our Latin America Gap Semester.
- Your college accepts some of the credits, though few – if any – count toward your degree. — This means you haven’t actually reduced the cost of your college degree.
- Your admission status changes from that of a normal freshman, to something closer to that of a transfer student. — This can affect your financial aid and scholarship awards, housing, and even the order in which you register for classes.
- Your college decides you are no longer a freshman. — Because you earned a semester or more of credit at another institution, you must reapply as a transfer student.
Here are the questions you should ask your college’s admissions office to determine if pursuing credits for your gap year is a good idea:
- Will earning credits affect my admission or enrollment status? Be sure you are clear on any affects to your class registration priority and eligibility for housing.
- Will you accept the credits I earn from a gap year program? Be sure to be specific about the program, any colleges it may be affiliated with, and the types of credits you’ll earn.
- Will earning credits affect my current and future financial aid and scholarship awards? Every college has different rules about whether awards can be deferred. Ask specifically about each award, as each scholarship may be handled differently.
The ultimate message is this: If you are going to pursue college credit for your gap year, be sure you do your homework.