The "gap year" has been around for more than a half century. Gap years first became common in the 1960s with the young, baby boom generation and a gap year industry developed to help students find what they would do in that year.
A gap year, also known as a sabbatical year, is typically a year-long break before or after college/university. It's not just a year off vacation and students engage in various educational and developmental activities.
A gap semester is not a new thing this year, but it has gotten more attention lately due to the pandemic. This is a shortened form of a gap year and would normally cover about 4 months. Due to the uncertainties about COVID-19 outbreaks and about how classes will look on and off-campus this fall, more students - particularly freshmen - are considering it. From what I'm hearing, many parents are also considering it rather than paying on-campus tuition for an online or hybrid version. It makes financial sense since the average U.S. yearly cost of college is about for a public college and $48,510 for private schools.
What is typically done during a gap year or semester? Some students use the year to research and find a program or school. The semester gap seems to be popular for students who have changed schools, courses, or majors and need to fill time before the next semester starts. Working at a job related to a course of study, internships, travel and cultural exchange, language learning, and volunteering are all possibilities. Students might take remedial or advanced courses at another school or online (MOOCs included). There are students who take a gap in order to play sports before officially playing them in college.
You can find studies that show that students who take a gap year perform better academically than those who do not, but parents are often concerned that their children will never start their education after the gap ends.
Unfortunately, right now many of those typical gap activities, such as travel, internships and even volunteer possibilities have also been limited or curtailed because of the pandemic. What are the options for a 2020-2021 gap year as of the summer of 2020? Limited.
I haven't seen any definitive statistics on how many students are taking a gap semester or year yet, but I know there is great interest and concern from colleges.