Alison Griffiths

Are you (or one of your children) a gap year candidate? This may seem a counter-the-herd notion at this time of year when teens are madly deciding where to take their next big step into adulthood — university or college.

But think about it a moment. One of the biggest investments facing young adults, and their families, is post-secondary education. Yes, you read correctly, education is clearly an investment. Most attend university or college hoping to land a better job at higher pay when they emerge. In my books that's an investment.

In fact, next to purchasing a house, it is education is the biggest investment most people make. And the cost is rapidly escalating. In 2010/2011 average annual university fees alone jumped four per cent to $5,138 ($6,307 in Ontario.) Those who don't live at home will pay as much as $80,000 for a four-year degree.

The answer for many is borrowing. The Vanier Institute of the Family estimated the average debt load for university students with an undergraduate degree was $18,000. The Canadian Federation of Students put student debt in the $27,000 range after graduation. The real debt story could actually be worse as increasing numbers of parents take out lines of credit to help pay for their children's education. As well, because 40 per cent of graduates have little or no debt, it pushes the real average debt load for graduates even higher.

On top of that, young graduates' earning power isn't what it used to be. According to Statistics Canada, employment income for 22- to 34-year-olds has decreased relatively, regardless of education, over the past two decades. At the same time, the cost of living, especially education, has increased dramatically.

It's a pretty simple recipe for disaster — less money chasing greater expenses.

Back in my college days we had a much more relaxed attitude, changing majors mid-degree wasn't uncommon — I did it three or four times. Nor did most of us worry about exactly which degree was earned beyond a focus on the arts, sciences or, perhaps, business. We were confident in our job prospects.

Today, there are far too many people with one and even two degrees working as sales clerks and restaurant wait staff because they can't find work in their field.

So that's the doom and gloom. But there is a way to turn education from a story about debt to one without — or at least with less. That's where a gap year or two comes in.

Every dollar earned and saved means a dollar less debt upon graduation. Actually it means more than that because as soon as interest starts being levied on student debt you need to earn that much more to pay it down. Even a low-wage job at $10 or more an hour will gross out around $20,000 annually. For those living at home a good chunk of that can go towards education.

Gap years are particularly helpful for the more than 50 per cent of students who enter post-secondary studies without a clear idea of what they want to do when they grow up.

A gap year or two can also be used to explore a young person's interests. It is difficult to comprehend the range of jobs in a given field when you're standing on the outside looking in. It can also help youth decide what they don't want. My youngest daughter was on her way to an environmental degree when she did a co-op placement in a lab. She loathed it and shifted her focus to the culinary world. I keep telling her that a kitchen is a lab and food is all about science.

But before she enrolled in chef school she volunteered weekends at a small Japanese restaurant. The owner/chef spoke little English and my daughter is deaf, but she emerged from the experience certain that she did want to be a chef and with a valuable reference in hand.

Gap years, before, or during, post secondary studies, offer many advantages, from reducing future debt to gaining experience and exploring an interest. And speaking from experience, there's nothing like a year out in the real world to make you buckle down in college or university.

Gap years have the side benefit of encouraging students to be much more careful of their spending once they start post-secondary studies. I also find students have a greater sense of pride in the eventual outcome.

Alison Griffiths' latest book is Count on Yourself: Take Charge of Your Money. You can reach her at www.alisongriffiths.ca, and on Twitter at @alisononmoney.