Imagine your bright young son or daughter comes to you, high school mortarboard in hand, and says, "Mom, Dad, I'm not going to college next year." What's your reaction?
If you're the Commander in Chief or First Lady, the answer is, reportedly, supportive. Their older daughter, Malia Obama, made headlines this week by announcing that she would put off matriculating at Harvard University until 2017.
It turns out that this decision is becoming more popular at Harvard and around the country.
"For years, Harvard's acceptance letters included a suggestion that students consider taking a break," before enrolling, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of There Is Life After College. "Harvard has seen a 33 percent jump in the number of students taking a gap year, and now dozens of other colleges and universities advertise the option on their web sites."
And the evidence shows that students who take a gap year may be more successful academically and more able to find meaningful and fulfilling work after college. But those benefits don't come automatically—how you structure a gap year matters a lot.
We decided to ask some gap year experts for tips.
What is a gap year?
It's important to note, first, what it's not, says Selingo. Simply marking time at a low-wage, low-skilled job after graduation, while a common choice for many low-income high school graduates, actually can have negative impacts on college success.
"Students who delay college to work odd jobs for a while, as they try to 'find themselves,' don't do as well as everyone else when they get to campus," Selingo explains. "They get lower grades and there's a greater chance they will drop out."
Instead, he adds, "For a gap year to have a significant impact, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything that students have experienced before."
"Transformative" experiences can come from things like: meaningful work that captures students' interest; specialized study; community service; horizon-broadening travel; or a combination of all. Students may arrange these experiences on their own, or participate in an organized program such as City Year or Global Citizen Year. Some of these cost money and others are funded, based on means or merit.
What are the potential benefits of gap years?
Studies on students at Middlebury College in Vermont and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that those who took a year off had modestly higher GPAs than those who didn't.
Selingo cites research that gap-year students take their studies more seriously and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like binge drinking.
Abby Falik is the founder of Global Citizen Year, a program that combines travel, language learning and service with a capstone project and has about 500 alumni so far. She says the program sets them up for success in college.
"Of our cohort at Global Citizen Year, of those who re-apply to college, 90 percent end up in more selective and better-matched schools," she says. Having discovered an "authentic passion," she says, they are better able to represent themselves to colleges. And 94 percent of those who are in college are on track to graduate on time, a statistic that matches other studies and that beats the national average.
Dale Stephens, who runs a San Francisco-based program called UnCollege that combines elements of entrepreneurship and mentorship, also sees his alumni getting into better colleges and earning better financial aid packages. And, he says, they are more likely to seek out personal relationships with professors, internships and capstone learning projects while in college, while also graduating on time.
Who can benefit most from gap years?
Selingo suggests it might be men, who currently graduate college at much lower rates than women.
Stephens says nontraditional learners who have been frustrated in the classroom can thrive when given the opportunity to pursue a passion.
And that leads to a final question.
With all the indicated benefits of gap years, why aren't they more popular?
We don't have hard numbers, but while interest in gap years seems to be rising, it's still an out-of-the-ordinary choice.
"Guidance counselors, who are usually evaluated by how many students they send right on to college, rarely recommend a gap year," points out Selingo. "Parents worry their kids will take a permanent detour and skip college altogether. So the fact that one of the First Daughters is taking this route could give the gap year the attention it deserves."
Abby Falik says part of the problem is the name. "The metaphor is wrong. Which parent would raise his/her hand to send their kid into a gaping hole? How could we possibly build a movement around sending kids into a gap, waiting to see whether or not they climb out?" She prefers the term "bridge year" or "launch pad."