Sunday’s announcement from the White House that Malia Obama would take a gap year before starting at Harvard University in the fall of 2017 drew swift reactions on social media-a mix of support, ridicule for delaying adulthood, and some envy that the idea of taking a break before college is too often reserved for the wealthy.
But more high-school students should be following Malia’s lead and getting off the conveyor belt that leads them to follow the well-plotted and well-trod course to college simply because they don’t know what else to do with their lives three months after they leave high school.
If young adults are to succeed eventually in the job market, they need environments where they can explore for a while before they settle. The family home and high school, with their close supervision and regimented schedule, don’t provide such space.
The gap year provides such space to explore careers, work and earn money, and learn new skills.
“There’s this rush to figure out what you’re going to do,” says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the Franklin Project, which has a goal to create 1 million civilian national-service positions for young adults. “We have cult of expectations to get started in life because you don’t want to fall behind. Life is not linear. Neither should the pathways of getting started.”
The stereotype that a gap year is a club for rich kids to go backpacking through Europe stems partly from its roots in the 18th century Grand Tour, when British men from privileged backgrounds traveled around Europe to explore art, history, and culture. Even today, an estimated 200,000 students in the United Kingdom defer admission to a university to travel or work.
There are no comparable statistics for the U.S., but the idea is growing in popularity. At the same time, more and more gap-year providers are trying to appeal to middle- and low-income students.
Sure, gap years are expensive but in some cases an investment in a year off might be money saved later on if students are more directed when they eventually go to college. After all, four out of 10 students who start at four-year colleges don’t earn a degree after six years.
Still, plenty of parents and students remain unconvinced that gap years are beneficial. Guidance counselors, who are usually evaluated by how many students they send right on to college, rarely recommend a gap year. Parents worry their kids will take a permanent detour and skip college altogether.
Every year, about 20 percent of high-school graduates delay college for some period of time, about half of them for just a year. But not all time off from education is created equal. The reasons a high-school graduate puts off college is critically important to how well they eventually do in school and in their career.
For the gap year to truly matter, it can’t be simply a break, a year spent sleeping in the childhood bedroom and working part-time at McDonald’s. Students who delay college to work odd jobs while they try to “find themselves” don’t do as well as everyone else when they get to campus. They get lower grades and there’s a greater chance they will drop out.
But students whose gap years involve travel - whether to a foreign country or to a different part of the U.S. - not only end up with higher grades in college, but they also graduate at the same rate as those who don’t delay at all. Research has found that when gap-year students arrive on campus, they take their studies more seriously and don’t engage in risky behavior, such as alcohol abuse.
For a gap year to have a significant impact on success in college, and later in the working world, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything a student has experienced before - a meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world. It should also be designed to help students acquire the skills and attributes that colleges and employers are looking for: maturity, confidence, problem solving, communication skills, and independence.
Today, there are new emerging gap year options that offer a broader range of experiences, sometimes at a lower cost:
- Global Citizen Year gives high-school graduates a gap year working in a developing country. Tufts University has added it as an option for incoming students. The provost there told me he could imagine half the class arriving via that route one day.
- In Baltimore, the author Wes Moore has created “a gap year for all” in BridgeEdU that combines four elements: college courses, work, and career exploration through internships, and most important, a total price tag under $8,000.
- AmericCorps is probably the closest thing the United States has to a national gap year. But nearly 600,000 people apply for 80,000 spots annually, only half of which are even full time.
As recently as the 1970s, a teenager had a number of options after graduating from high school: get a good-paying job right away, enlist in the military, find an apprenticeship in a trade, or go to college. A teenager today really has only two of those options still available - the military or college. Fewer than one percent of Americans serve in the military, so most go to college right after high school. Many of them are simply not ready for college or need a break from the intensity of school.
Too much of the rhetoric about taking time off after high school gets wrapped up in the “don’t go to college” movement. It’s not that we should encourage students to skip college, but we need to provide more pathways for further education after high school than the one route we largely provide today. If anything, perhaps Malia Obama’s decision will encourage others to find a better way to locating the on-ramp to college, a career, and eventually a purposeful life.
Selingo is author of “There Is Life After College,” and the best-selling “College (Un)Bound.” He is former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.