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Education | Magazine

Is taking a gap year before college a good idea?

Malia Obama’s not the only high school graduate delaying college for a year. Here’s why they’re doing it.

justin rentria for the boston globe

The two-sentence press release the White House issued this spring about first daughter Malia’s plan to take a gap year before starting at Harvard in September 2017 sent tremors through certain circles. “Our website traffic the next day was more than nine times what it usually is,” says Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association, based in Portland, Oregon. Google searches for the term spiked dramatically that day, too, but within a week were back to the status quo — probably because much of the activity was from people simply wondering “What the heck’s a gap year, anyway?” After all, only about 1 percent of American students defer college to take one.

The idea of young people putting off school or work to “find” themselves has been around at least since Jack Kerouac published On the Road in 1957. In 1969 a company called Dynamy was formed in Worcester as one of the first experiential learning programs in the US specifically for gap years. By the 1980s, the concept began gaining in popularity when Cornelius Bull, an educator who had spent time in Europe, started the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, New Jersey, and Northampton. As headmaster of the Verde Valley prep school in Sedona, Arizona, he saw students transformed by their service work in Mexico and on Navajo reservations. “That’s what lit them up,” says his daughter, Holly Bull, now president of Interim. “That’s what they talked about and remembered at reunions, and that got him started.”

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Department of Education data are clear that, on the whole, not going right to college from high school often means never going at all or never graduating if you do go. What differentiates a gap year from simply taking some time off is that most kids who take them have already been accepted at a school and are pursuing their chosen course through hands-on learning with intentionality and purpose. “People are scared to take a break,” says Mia McCue, a 19-year-old Natick High School graduate who started at American University this fall. She took a gap year because “I just needed to do something different to make me excited about school again.” That did not mean sitting around the house posting on Instagram or taking an extended vacation. McCue’s parents supported her decision but encouraged her to learn something. She ended up spending most of her break time doing volunteer work and picking up Spanish in South America. Afterward, she says, “I felt a new excitement to go to school that I wasn’t feeling at the end of senior year.”

It’s not an uncommon sentiment. One of the reasons gap years have been steadily increasing in popularity in the past five or 10 years is the growing pressures students face in high school. “They’re totally burned out,” says Jane Sarouhan, vice president of Interim Northampton. “They’re taking three AP courses, playing sports for the season, and taking as ambitious an extracurricular schedule as possible.” In addition, the prevalence of social media, which allows kids to curate a “perfect” image, and the more involved style of parenting that’s become the norm in recent years mean many young people lack the self-sufficiency, maturity, confidence, and emotional intelligence needed to succeed in college or the “real world.”

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The Department of Education’s most recent statistics found the average US student who goes to college within a year after high school takes just under six years to graduate. The data on gap-year students are limited, but indicate 90 percent of them do go on to college within a year of high school graduation, and they tend to be more likely to graduate on time, have higher GPAs, and be more engaged in campus life than their counterparts. “There’s more and more pressure to be on this conveyor belt, finishing school, pursuing a master’s, getting a career,” says Alia Pialtos, assistant director of admissions at Dynamy. “There’s not time to explore what one’s really passionate about. A gap year allows students to think of themselves as a whole person.”

While safety is a priority in formal gap-year situations, part of the point is for students to challenge themselves to make good decisions and handle tough situations. “The most important thing on the gap year is you learn your limits,” says 21-year-old Laura Ippolito of Andover, who started at Montana State University in September 2015 after a post-high school stint studying in South America, the American West, and Southeast Asia. “You learn that where you think your limits are, they’re actually way past that.” Facilitated gap-year programs — which perhaps two-thirds of gap-year students choose to join, at least for the first portion of their time off — also usually involve shared introspection and mentoring that could be considered a kind of life coaching.

All this comes at a price, of course, in addition to the rising financial burden of earning a four-year degree. A semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Wyoming, or Colorado’s Where There Be Dragons, for example, starts at around $10,000 and can go well into the mid-five-figure range. Costs like those raise the question of whether the experience is only for rich kids. A 2014 survey of gap-year students found that nearly 45 percent estimated their parents’ annual incomes at $100,000 or higher. But some programs have started to help, like Oregon-based Carpe Mundi, which provides scholarships and other support for local low-income students interested in a gap year.

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To save money, students can also build a gap year that lets them live at home. Maya Ludtke, 20, lived with her freelance-journalist single mother in Cambridge while working at a City Year AmeriCorps program in a Roxbury elementary school. She was paid $1,200 a month, before taxes, and upon completion won an AmeriCorps award worth nearly $6,000. The job came with a 90-minute commute each way and long days. “It really was like a different world,” she says. “I learned there’s a lot of work you can do right in your own community. I came out of it thinking I really need to take advantage of the fact that I got into a really good college [Wellesley], and I kind of see its value more.”

Other opportunities include volunteering, internships — some with stipends — job shadowing, and community service programs. Students can sometimes receive college credit for work they do on their gap year, and it’s even possible to find financial aid for the experience (check americangap.org for a long list of scholarships and grants).

Daniel Lander, who spent his year between Concord Academy and Harvard interning in local, national, and international politics, says: “Watching people trying to pass comprehensive climate legislation or health care bills was really cool in a way that studying calculus wasn’t. It helped me frame questions about what I wanted to get out of college, as opposed to just focusing on studying and moving on to the next level without interrogating where my passions might lie.”

Not all universities allow deferments, but many are creating their own gap or “bridge” year programs for students who want to defer. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a $7,500 fellowship, and Tufts University provides financial aid for its new 1+4 service learning programs. At Boston College, “we strongly endorse gap years” for students who want them, says John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions. “It’s important for students to have a good sense of why they’re going to college and what they’re going for. If a gap year helps with that, we’re behind it all the way.”

What students get out of gap years may make them well worth the cost. “Taking longer to graduate, changing majors, or maybe even changing schools in the middle, semesters abroad, all that is potentially much more expensive than figuring out what you want to do in advance on your gap year,” says Dynamy’s Pialtos. While financial benefits are nice, the character building and, sometimes, resume building that students get out of their time between high school and college are even more valuable. “Colleges are tracking gap-year students, and they’re more mature, more focused, more rested, and less inclined to be swept along by the partying, and they have a far greater sense of their personal power,” says Holly Bull. “They have fewer emotional issues and roommate issues. Why wouldn’t any college want that in their freshman class?”

Or, as Maria Ippolito, Laura’s mother, puts it, she’s “just a very different person than the kid who left to go on the gap year. She’s more worldly and kind of fearless.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

5 GAP-YEAR EXPERIENCES

Laura Ippolito during her gap year.

Laura Ippolito 21

High School Phillips Academy, Andover

College Montana State University

Major Sustainable foods and bioenergy systems

Gap Year Through multiple programs, studied sustainable farming in Ecuador, earned wilderness EMT certification in Wyoming, taught English in Nepal, and worked with elephants at Thailand Wild Life Refuge

Daniel Lander 25

High School Concord Academy

College/Grad School Harvard College/Kennedy School of Government

Major History and literature/public policy

Gap Year Set up a year where he: volunteered for then Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon; interned for John Kerry in Washington, D.C.; interned for a member of Parliament in London; interned at Massachusetts Democratic Party

Addie Turner

Addie Turner 18

High School Advanced Math & Science Academy (Marlborough)

College Accepted at UMass Amherst

Major Civil engineering

Gap Year Interned at the Los Angeles Department of Public Works Bureau of Engineering while living with a family friend; currently waitressing full time at home in Hopkinton; next will work in the National Parks Department in Australia and New Zealand

Mia McCue 19

High School Natick High School

College American University

Major Elementary education

Gap Year Volunteered in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador with Youth International and visited the Galapagos Islands; took Spanish classes and taught at a Montessori school in Costa Rica

Maya Ludtke 20

High School Cambridge Rindge and Latin

College Wellesley

Major Undeclared, but planning on Environmental studies

Gap Year Set up her own gap year through AmeriCorps, working with students in a Roxbury elementary school as tutor and behavioral coach, and interacting with their families, while living at home

— Elizabeth Gehrman

FINDING A GAP YEAR EXPERIENCE

AmeriCorps

A public-private partnership that pairs adult volunteers with public service positions. 800-942-2677; nationalservice.gov

American Gap Association

An information, research, and standard-setting organization. 503-206-7336; americangap.org

Global Citizen Year

Offers bridge years with a focus on social enterprise and international travel. 415-963-9293; globalcitizenyear.org

USA Gap Year Fairs

A national circuit of events where students can learn about many offerings. 508-755-2571; usagapyearfairs.org

Youth International

Organizes gap-year and volunteer-abroad opportunities. 720-270-3323; youthinternational.org

Center for Interim Programs

Gap year counseling (via phone, or in person, in Northampton) . 413-585-0980; interimprograms.com

EnRoute

Gap-year counseling, (via phone, or in person in Stowe, Vermont). 609-529-1459; enroutegapyear.com

Taking Off

Gap-year counseling (via phone, or in person in Scituate). 781-545-8231; takingoff.net

— Elizabeth Gehrman

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