Taking a “gap year” before college is a British tradition that’s becoming a big trend in the US

US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama announced yesterday (May 1) that their daughter Malia will attend Harvard University. That wasn’t particularly surprising: Many top universities wooed the famous teenager, and both her parents attended Harvard Law School.

But the second part of Malia’s decision might have surprised some Americans: After finishing high school this spring, she will take a “gap year,” not starting at Harvard until the fall of 2017. While it’s common practice elsewhere in the world, only 2.2% of incoming freshman in the US class of 2015 took a year off before entering college, a recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles found.

Today, many US universities not only allow admitted students to take a year off before beginning their studies, but encourage it. In 2000, Harvard’s admissions officers co-authored an article titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” in which they suggest admitted students combat the mounting pressures of secondary and post-secondary education (and modern life in general) by taking a year off. The article, which shows up on Harvard’s admissions page, estimates that between 80 and 110 students, or about 5% of those admitted to Harvard each year, decide to take a year off before matriculating.

The article describes the gap year as a “time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”

At this point it isn’t clear what Malia Obama’s plans are. Some students use gap years do a project related to their academic interests. In the past she has shown an interest in film and television, working as an intern on the sets of the HBO series Girls and the CBS sci-fi show Extant, so it’s possible some project in that field will emerge. Many students use a gap year to travel or volunteer in far-flung places. Of course, Malia Obama has already seen more of the world than most teenagers—though probably not strapped with a backpack.

The idea of complementing bookish studies with real-world experience goes back hundreds of years. In the 17th century, students from elite British families would take a “grand tour,” completing their education by seeing the European museums, architecture, and fashion they’d only read about in the classroom. The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of the gap year as a recognizable phenomenon in the UK, with tour companies offering travel and volunteering opportunities to “gappers.”

In New Zealand “the big OE”—overseas experience—has become ingrained in the culture, and it’s an important item to list on one’s CV. While the rite of passage traditionally was made after university, these days an increasing number of Kiwis make the trip right out of high school.

The term “gap year” caught on in the US about a decade ago, when Prince William and Prince Harry took planned time off before entering university in the UK, according to Holly Bull, president of an independent agency called Interim Programs that helps US pre-college students plan their time off. Bull’s father founded the agency in 1980 to promote the concept. “I’ve basically watched the trend grow from it’s inception in the US,” she says. “And while I wouldn’t call it mainstream now, we’ve seen a lot of growth.”

This growth has led to a burgeoning “gap year” planning services industry, populated by an increasing number of consulting agencies like Bull’s. The American Gap Association (AGA), founded in 2012, oversees this industry, acting as a kind of accreditation agency. Based on the programs it reviews, the AGA estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 students annually take a planned “gap year” in the US, and that the number of students doing this has grown by between 20% and 30% each year since 2006.

“The growing popularity of gap years speaks to a larger conversation in the US about what direction education is heading and how we help young people become thoughtful, caring citizens,” Joe O’Shea, president of the AGA, says. He also mentions a growing interest in global affairs among younger generations as a driver in the popularity of these programs, many of which provide students with the opportunity to practice a foreign language while doing community service work overseas.

Taking a “gap year” like this can be pricey, but there are ways to do it on the cheap, according to Bull. She cites as an example one student she helped to plan such a year, who served half the time as a counselor at a wilderness education program in the US and the other half as an attendant at a fly fishing lodge in New Zealand, in exchange for room and board.

Still, taking time off before starting school may not be a good decision for all pre-college students. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said planned “gap years” like the one Malia Obama is taking are primarily an indulgence of the elite. Working and saving money before college is a necessity for many, not an enrichment exercise.

“There’re tons of people taking a gap year,” she said. “It’s better known as ‘taking time off before college.'” And for those students, the year outside of formal education can be detrimental, she said.

A majority of people who do not go straight to college after high school end up having a much harder time completing their degrees, she said, based on her analysis of federal data for a study published in 2011. Getting married, having a baby, becoming financially responsible for siblings, or losing academic motivation can all make it harder for low-income students to return to their education after taking time off, she explained.

I worry about schools encouraging low-income students to take a gap year,” she says. “I think it’s very risky, based on my work. If they delay, it can cause all sorts of problems.”

For parents of college-bound students, like the Obamas, any diversion from the formal track can be disconcerting. After all, losing motivation or falling in love can happen to anyone, at any time. “The idea of a ‘gap year’ sounds really great,” Goldrick-Rab says, “until you realize how messy peoples’ lives are.”

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