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Malia Obama sparks interest, but gap years are rare

Malia Obama will attend Harvard University in 2017 after taking a year off from her studies.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images/File
Malia Obama will attend Harvard University in 2017 after taking a year off from her studies.

In recent days, the “gap year” has enjoyed a nice little run.

The announcement that first daughter Malia Obama will take a year off before starting college at Harvard has triggered a wave of news articles, blog posts, and on-camera commentary.

Whether that attention will inspire more students to plan a gap year of their own, however, is another question.

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News flurry notwithstanding, the gap year remains a rather rare phenomenon in the world of higher education, according to local admissions officials.

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Nationally, numbers aren’t easy to come by, but locally, statistics don’t suggest a gap-year boom. According to Harvard, between 80 and 110 students defer enrollment annually. At Boston University, the school typically grants between 70 and 80 deferrals for an incoming class of around 3,500 — the majority of them for gap-year programs. And at Boston College, as few as 15 students will seek deferrals in any given year.

“It is certainly not the norm,” says Alan Solomont, dean of the The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. “Students work really hard, and getting in to college is really competitive. And when the admission comes, students understandably want to get on with it.”

The gap year is nothing new, of course, existing for years at the fringes of American higher education. And while it has long been associated with wealthy students looking to blow off steam overseas before strolling, fashionably late, onto a storied college campus, the current reality is often far different.

The reasons for a gap year, say college officials, are numerous. Some students, faced with skyrocketing tuition costs, decide to spend a year after high school working to save money. Others go in search of a life experience — an educational or cultural odyssey — they can’t find in a stuffy college lecture hall.

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And some simply don’t feel ready to make the jump to college life, using the year off as a kind of personal buffer.

“Between high school and college, you sort of feel like you should grow up in that summer,” says Tessa Steinert Evoy, 23, who spent a year working in London before beginning college at Boston University. “[But] there’s only two months in between, and having that time to literally grow up was really important for me, personally.”

Not surprisingly, a number of organizations focus on assisting with gap-year arrangements — touting the potential benefits of a year away. CIEE, a Maine-based nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization, operates in nine countries and offers opportunities for those seeking a year break before college. Colorado-based Where There Be Dragons, a gap-year and summer-abroad program, offers similar services.

“The biggest immediate benefit is that you arrive at your freshman year of college much more focused than you otherwise would have been,” says Matt Redman of CIEE. “You’re mature, you make better decisions about things as simple as going to class.”

Still, it’s been slow going for the gap year.

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For one thing, it can be intimidating for teens to break from the customary trajectory into adulthood: high school to college to first job, with a possible stop at grad school along the way.

For another, says John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, many students aren’t aware that a deferral is even an option. This spring, Mahoney fielded multiple questions from families regarding a gap year. Among the most popular: Is that allowed?

“It leads me to believe that they think there’s some rule or regulation that you applied this year, and so you have to go this year,” he said. “Definitely not.”

In fact, many colleges and universities, including some with prominent national reputations, don’t just allow for a gap year but actively encourage it.

Harvard University “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way,” according to its website.

In a letter to applicants, Greg Buckles, dean of admissions at Middlebury College, pointed out that students who take time between their high school graduation and their collegiate arrival “hold a disproportionately high number of leadership positions on campus and, on average, perform better academically.”

Tufts University in 2014 announced the debut of its “1+4” program, which allows students to complete a year of national or international service before beginning their schooling.

This year, 15 fellows worked in Brazil, Nicaragua, and Spain, doing everything from caring for wild animals to teaching English and music theory.

One of them was Daniel Lewis, a 19-year-old from Washington, D.C., who spent the past year living on the southern coast of Brazil interning at an entrepreneurial organization, helping with communications and fund-raising.

Lewis will begin his first on-campus year at Tufts in the fall. Though he occasionally worried that he was missing out on the college experience, he now describes his year away as something he couldn’t imagine having missed out on.

“You look at friends in college and what they’re doing, and you have this sense of, ‘Did I make the right decision?’ ” he said. “But there are moments when you’re doing what you’re doing, eating dinner with your host family, and you’re like, ‘I understand why now.’ ”

Whether the gap year is destined to join the likes of frat parties and beer pong in the pantheon of college traditions remains to be seen. But at the very least, the first daughter’s decision has shined a spotlight on the practice.

“When Malia Obama chooses to do a gap year,” says Solomont, of Tufts, “this is helping to popularize the idea.”

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.