This spring, first daughter and graduating high school senior Malia Obama announced her intention to attend her father’s alma mater, Harvard University. But not this fall. First, she’ll take a yearlong break from the classroom (and the first family’s spotlight) in an increasingly common post-high school rite of passage known as the gap year.
Malia Obama may be a highly visible trendsetter, but she’s hardly alone. Harvard, her university of choice, is a national leader in the gap-year trend: Harvard actively encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for a year. More students are taking heed. The number of incoming Harvard students taking a gap year has jumped by 33 percent over the past decade; similarly, MIT’s admission deferments doubled between 2009 and 2010. The trend isn’t limited to the Ivy League, either: About one-third of graduating high school students take time off before college, usually to work, travel or volunteer, according to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study conducted in 2012 (the last year for which this data is available).
There’s a reason Harvard and other elite institutions increasingly encourage gap years: A break between high school and college seems to result in a better experience during and after college. According to the American Gap Association (AGA), students who take gap years have higher grade point averages and shorter average times to graduation than those who head directly to college. And the AGA reports that “gappers” are happier and more civic-minded after college: They’re twice as likely to be satisfied with their jobs, twice as likely to vote and more than three times as likely to participate in volunteer work than students who don’t take gap years.
But is a gap year really possible for any student who wants to undertake it? And how do students and families plan for the gap, and how do they define its success?
It’s clear that gap years have value — often, that value translates into dollars and cents. When parents look at the cost of funding a five- or six-year college experience (the NCES reports that only 59 percent of college students finish in six years) and weigh the fact that the average time it takes to graduate for gap-year students is just four years after the start of college, the monetary value of a gap year becomes clear, says Charlie Taibi, COO of San Francisco–based UnCollege, a 5-year-old program that provides guidance and structure for gap years.
UnCollege’s gap-year program has a price tag of $16,000, which includes housing during stints abroad and in San Francisco, while a year at a private university runs an average $32,404 for tuition and fees, according to CollegeData.
“A lot of this trend has to do with the increasing cost of college,” says Taibi. “Parents are looking for return on investment [ROI] for college, and with gap years, the ROI is there.”
But are gap-year benefits, financial and otherwise, available to all? “My sense is that this is a trend that mainly encompasses the higher-income brackets,” says Doria Hastings, a counselor at Tacoma’s Washington High School. “We’re a school with a high poverty rate, and we don’t see many students taking intentional gap years.” Students may defer college enrollment after high school for a number of reasons, such as work or to help support their own family, she says, but her sense — and fear — is that many never return to school.
Data from the AGA lines up with her observations: The largest share — nearly 20 percent — of gap-year students have family incomes of more than $200,000 per year. And as family income goes up, so does parental contribution to gap-year expenses, meaning that those in the lower-income brackets have to fund more of their gap-year experience themselves.
For this reason, Hastings encourages her students, many of whom are lower-income, to go directly to college, if possible.
“Many students don’t know what they want to study and want to take time off to figure that out. But the entry-level classes in college are a great place to determine what you’d like to do,” she says.
Maybe so, but heading straight to college simply isn’t possible for every college-bound student, says Whitney Shute of Lacey. After she graduated in the top 10 of her class at Timberline High School in 2012, college wasn’t financially feasible for her family. So she worked for two years to save up and contribute to her family’s living expenses. She’s now enrolled at Saint Martin’s University studying psychology, with an expected graduation date of 2018.
While she didn’t travel the world during her gap year, Shute is still satisfied with the decision, she says. “It wasn’t easy seeing my classmates in high school an entire two years ahead of me in university,” she says, “but I gained maturity, focus and direction.”
Most gappers aren’t free as birds. Nearly two-thirds participate in a structured gap-year program that involves travel, volunteerism and accountability.
The desire for a hiatus from traditional academia was a major motivator for taking a gap year, according to 81 percent of gappers cited in the 2015 AGA study. Indeed, because so many gappers are hoping to break free from the rigor of tests and schedules, it’s easy to imagine a gap year as an extended vacation of sorts, free from responsibilities.
This “spring break” image is a persistent myth, one that puts some parents off, says Taibi.
In reality, most gappers aren’t free as birds. Nearly two-thirds participate in a structured gap-year program that involves travel, volunteerism and accountability. (Carpe Diem International Education, National Outdoor Leadership School and Global Citizen Year are the most popular programs, as reported in the AGA survey.) UnCollege’s program, on track to “graduate” 100 students this year, includes coaching, service learning, international travel and an internship over a nine-month term. The AGA reports that only a little more than one-third of gappers take an “independent” gap year devoid of such structure.
Programming appears to pay off: Taking part in a structured gap-year program that includes international travel is one of the strongest predictors of a satisfying gap-year experience, according to the AGA. Other predictors of a great gap year include forming relationships with other gap-year peers and managing a personal budget.
And the common parental fear that gappers won’t return to school? It just doesn’t bear out. According to Joe O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, students enter college after a gap year at the same rate as students who go straight there after high school. In fact, some studies suggest more students attend college after a gap year than after high school: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 69 percent of high school seniors enroll in college; per the AGA, as many as 90 percent of gappers head to college after their gap year.
Doing it right
The best gap year is one that’s well-planned, says Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington (UW). Don’t assume that a university allows or encourages gap years — some, like Gonzaga University, Seattle Pacific University and the University of Puget Sound, offer deferred enrollment, but others, such as UW and Washington State University, do not.
“We don’t offer deferred enrollment, so students who wish to take a year off will need to reapply, and they’re not guaranteed a spot in a year, even if they’ve already been admitted,” Seegert says.
To smooth academic reentry after a gap year, Seegert and Hastings recommend ordering high school transcripts and test scores, and outlining all enrollment dates prior to departing on an international experience. If a college admission application for the year you’d like to attend is already available, fill it out prior to your departure, advises Seegert. Stay in touch with your intended university’s admissions office about any financial aid or tuition deadlines, too.
This type of planning and up-front admin work help ensure that a gap year is an unforgettable experience. And now, it’s POTUS-approved.