A big chunk of Maddie Moser’s high school career happened during the pandemic – which meant online school and added stressors. When graduation arrived, she wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I didn’t feel prepared to make a postsecondary decision,” said the 18-year-old Calgarian, who had some financial support from her parents but was going to have to contribute quite a bit of money herself. She didn’t want to commit to a program she wasn’t sure about. “It was very expensive.”

She had also seen her older sister, someone who’d always been independent and academically strong, struggle in postsecondary, unsure if she’d chosen the right program.

“I took my gap year to focus on myself and eventually to save money,” says Ms. Moser, who spent more than $3,000 on a six-week French course in Quebec City before hunkering down and working full-time for the rest of her year off school, starting at a post office and now as a cook at a diner. She has already made enough to cover what she needs for her first year in a social-sciences program in Belgium, where she starts in September.

“The experience, it was pretty eye-opening for me,” she says. “I needed to do some maturing.”

Ms. Moser is among a cohort that is increasingly seeing the gap year as a money-making opportunity, as opposed to a stereotype that conjures wealthy young people travelling or volunteering abroad.

There’s a big difference in who is taking a year off now compared to even a few years ago, says Michelle Dittmer, president of the Canadian Gap Year Association, a Burlington, Ont.-based non-profit organization. Previously, “either you didn’t get in anywhere and you called it a gap year, or you came from a lot of affluence and you got to backpack Europe on mom and dad’s dime,” she says.

Now a strong job market, high cost-of-living and a graduation age of 17 in many provinces are leading a wider variety of young people to choose a year off before embarking on postsecondary school. Ms. Dittmer says her young clients these days see the gap year as a “tool” – to help them mature, save money or use work experience to help figure out what they want to study.

She adds, the disruptions high-schoolers faced during the pandemic appear to have “catalyzed and accelerated” this trend, as has an economy where parents are stretched financially.

A recent Leger survey commissioned by Embark, an education savings platform, found that parents are struggling to save money for their child’s postsecondary education, yet many still see it as their responsibility. The survey of 1,000 Canadian parents with at least one child under 18 found 73 per cent are finding it harder to save for their child’s education “with prices and living expenses going up,” while 61 per cent would put off their retirement to help their child pay for school.

It also found parents typically don’t know how much postsecondary education costs, and often guess around $60,000, while the average cost of a four-year program is above $90,000, including all expenses, according to the poll. Ms. Dittmer notes that figure can be lower if students live at home; she says the average cost of tuition alone in Canada is about $8,500 a year.

Working for a year can really help with those expenses, she says, noting she’s seen a five-fold increase over the past three years in the number of clients taking a year off with the express purpose of making money. At the high-earnings end, she worked with one young person who made $84,000 on his gap year, working multiple jobs, including one at a bank.

“Other students spend a good chunk of their gap year applying to scholarships,” she adds, noting she advises these individuals to treat the process like a job and work at it daily. She’s had some students land upwards of $60,000 in scholarships.

Ms. Dittmer notes that even someone making minimum wage can put away a decent amount if they are living at home and have minimal expenses. For instance, someone working in Ontario for $15.50 an hour would make more than $34,000 (before tax) if they worked full-time for 14 months. However, there is value in budgeting for some leisure time and activities so they aren’t totally burned out by the time they get to postsecondary.

“We do encourage them to spend some money on making it an enjoyable year,” she says.

Tracey Bissett, a former Royal Bank executive who now teaches in the financial services faculty at Toronto’s Centennial College and produces a financial literacy podcast for young people, suggests high school students have a conversation with their parents by Grade 10 or 11 about what money might be available to them for education.

“The earlier the conversation gets held the better,” she says.

Ms. Bissett notes young people who start investing in a registered retirement savings plan while in high school can use the Lifelong Learning Plan to draw up to $20,000 from their RRSP, tax-free – essentially creating a no-interest loan for themselves.

She believes the increased cost-of-living has made the idea of a gap year more socially acceptable to people – especially parents.

“You don’t want to be rushed into a program and incur a lot of debt,” she said. “When it was cheaper to go to school, it was less of a big deal.”

The Globe and Mail, July 2, 2023