Malia Obama’s ‘Gap Year’ Is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend

By Mike McPhate

It sounds awfully nice: A yearlong postponement of schoolwork.

The White House announced on Sunday that Malia Obama, the president’s older daughter, would be among the thousands of students to take a so-called gap year between high school and college.

The hiatus from classrooms, textbooks and tests has become an increasingly popular choice. The idea is that university-bound students go on an adventure, do something meaningful and, if all goes to plan, arrive at campus a year later more mature, focused and attuned to their goals.

Still, despite growing acceptance of the gap year, or bridge year, by university administrators — and its ready adoption in other parts of the world — many Americans continue to view it with trepidation.

Why are gap years becoming more popular?

Some parents worry that their children could veer off track academically and never recover, but higher education experts argue that the opposite appears to be true. Studies have shown that not only do the students go on to perform better than their non-gap-year classmates, they also tend to end up in more satisfying careers. (Although, researchers note that self-selection could play a part as gap-year students tend to be more affluent).

“For some reason there’s some concern around — ‘Does it contribute to academic atrophy?’ What we’re finding is absolutely not,” said Ethan Knight, founder of American Gap Association, an accreditation organization. “If anything, it connects the theory that they’ve been exposed to over their many years of education to the reality of what’s going on in the real world.”

A growing number of colleges and universities, including all eight institutions in the Ivy League system, have been signing on to the idea as a constructive choice for incoming freshmen. Harvard University, where Malia plans to start in the fall of 2017, has for decades been urging members of its incoming class to consider it.

And the case has only grown stronger with the rising intensity of competition to get into elite colleges, according to an essay written by William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, and two other school officials.

“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors,” the authors wrote.

One remedy, they suggest, is to take time out. For the scores of incoming Harvard students who heed the advice each year, the authors added, “The results have been uniformly positive.”

Are gap years expensive?

In the reaction to Malia’s decision on social media, some people have pointed out, occasionally with a note of contempt, that the financial barriers to embarking on a gap year can be too much for some families. A yearlong, immersive, international program, for example, can run about $35,000.

But university administrators also note that gap-year plans come in a variety of forms, some of them at no cost. AmeriCorps’ City Year, for example, pays students stipends to teach. Another popular program, Global Citizen Year, provides financial support — more than $6 million since 2010— for students to pursue experiential learning.

But those programs can be highly competitive. City Year, for example, says it selects only about one in four applicants.

“It’s hard to do it if you don’t have the resources,” said Chris Yager, the founder of Where There Be Dragons, which leads international programs.

But, he added, organizations that target gap-year students often tend to be driven by a sense of mission rather than profit, and many programs, including his, offer at least some level of financial assistance. “People who are doing the gap-year programming, right now at least, they’re all really principled people,” he said.

Then there are those gap-year plans created by students who possess rare initiative. Robert Clagett, the director of college counseling at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Tex., recalled one who spent the first third of her year tending llamas at a monastery in North Dakota. The next third, she worked for a judge in Oklahoma City, and, finally, she volunteered at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s not unusual for students to spend maybe half their gap year with a job,” Mr. Clagett said, “maybe living at home, or an internship where they make some money, and then spending the second half of the year traveling or having whatever kinds of experiences they’re hoping for.”

Which schools offer gap-year programs?

More universities have begun formal gap-year programs that take varying approaches to enrollment and the providing of aid, including Princeton,Tufts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Elon University.

At Princeton and North Carolina, for example, freshman-year enrollment is deferred and at least some financial help is provided, while Elon considers participants enrolled and charges its regular tuition. Another programoffered by the New School in New York City also treats students as enrolled and offers up to a full year of academic credit.

Florida State University is among the latest campuses to start offering scholarships to gap-year students. Late last year, the public institution said applicants could get up to $5,000, and sent an email to the entire incoming freshmen class urging them to consider deferring their freshman year.

“We wanted to spearhead this effort in higher education and to be a leader, and to showcase gap years as an important part of the educational system,” said Joe O’Shea, the university’s director of undergraduate research and academic engagement.

“We’ve had a really strong response so far,” Mr. O’Shea added. “It’s been really exciting.”

O.K., but what do students say?

There is growing evidence that as more students discover that postponing their freshmen year is an option, many take the opportunity.

The exact number of young people who take gap years is not known, but theAmerican Gap Association said its surveys indicate that it has been on a sharp rise for at least a decade. At the same time, attendance at the national circuit of USA Gap Year Fairs has seen explosive growth in recent years, organizers say.

This is all great news, said Mr. Clagett, the St. Stephen’s administrator, who is a longtime proponent of the gap-year movement.

Asked if there is any downside to gap years, he paused. In about 40 years of working in higher education, he said, “I have yet to work with a student who has regretted taking a gap year.”

In a letter to The New York Times, Aaron Schwartz, a Princeton student, said his gap year in Urubamba, Peru, was “the best decision of my life.” Returning volunteers are not only enriched academically, he said, but they are imbued with a new sense of civic responsibility.

“So my advice? Do something different. Go on an adventure. Learn a new language. You won’t regret it.”

Original article available in The New York Times

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