City Year Members of the AmeriCorps of Little Rock arrived in the heart of the Arkansas summer. But they didn’t let the nearly 100-degree heat and oppressive humidity stop them. Instead, they dove in with alacrity, helping teachers at our four partner schools in the Little Rock School District prepare their classrooms and lesson plans for the school year ahead.

Over the next 11 months, this dedicated group of 18 to 25 year olds will devote long hours, often from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., to help students in central Arkansas reach their full potential. As student success coaches, they offer intensive whole-class support, small group sessions, one-on-one tutoring, and before and after school programs. Throughout their “year of service,” they will join fellow AmeriCorps members for professional development training, tackling issues ranging from diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategies ( DEIB) to solving practical problems. They will also participate in regular learning opportunities to learn essential skills, such as conflict resolution, that would enable them to excel in their current job and in their future careers.

For too long, gap year programs have been subject to unfair stigma or stereotyping. In some cases, critics have portrayed them as an unattainable luxury for young people to take a break from life and travel the world. Or worse, they portrayed them as potential obstacles to individuals’ future academic or professional endeavors. But research consistently shows that’s just not true.

With each incoming class of AmeriCorps members, City Year Little Rock demonstrates the substantial benefits of gap years, not just for those who participate, but for Arkansas employers who desperately need a pool of capable, ready workers. Evidence reaffirms that gap years improve 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. This may be because research indicates that these same students will excel when enrolled. A report by the Gap Year Association found that 90% of students who take time off after high school enroll in a four-year institution within a year of completing their breaks. These individuals receive higher GPAs and have better graduation rates, earning their degrees in four years or less compared to the national average of six.

Jennifer Cobb.

Beyond academics, gap year programs provide young adults with in-demand skills. Take the example of City Year. According to a recent survey of alumni, nine out of 10 AmeriCorps members said their year of service helped them become better problem solvers and develop the ability to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps members must learn to thrive in challenging environments and to do so as a team. After their year of service, they report being better communicators and relationship builders. They can also manage their time effectively, 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?” Certainly, some programs may have a high price. Others, like City Year, offer resources to offset potential costs, such as bi-weekly allowances, pre-planned time off, scholarships, health insurance, and locational benefits. All provide opportunities for young adults to have life-changing experiences that will help them advance in their careers. Again, look at the year of the city. Nearly half of AmeriCorps members remain in the communities where they served. Even out of the red jacket, they continue to contribute to the local workforce and economy in many professions, whether in local business or in the technology and healthcare sectors.

Taking a gap year can provide a break between high school and college or that next step. But this is not a stoppage of an individual’s personal and professional growth. Completing a gap year is a decision that prepares young adults and our future workforce for lasting success. And that’s something we should encourage, especially in today’s tight job 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.