Taking a year off is catching on with students looking for adventure and to avoid burnout.
This summer, Monika Lutz’s life took an unusual turn. Instead of heading off to college, the high school graduate packed her bags for a Bengali jungle. Lutz, like a growing number of other young Americans, is taking a year off. Gap years are quite common in Britain and Australia, but they are just beginning to catch on in the U.S. Lutz, who grew up in Boulder, Colo., has put together a 14-month schedule that includes helping deliver solar power to impoverished communities in India and interning for a fashion designer in Shanghai – experiences that are worlds away from the stuffy lecture halls and beer-stained frat houses that await many of her peers. “I could not be happier,” she says.
No one tracks the number of U.S. students who decide to take gap years, but many high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers say the option is becoming more popular. Harvard, which has long encouraged its incoming first-years to defer matriculation, has seen a 33% jump in the past decade in the number of students taking gap years. MIT’s deferments have doubled in the past year. And Princeton formalized the trend in 2009 by funding gap-year adventures for 20 incoming first-years annually. The school’s goal is to extend this offer to about 100 students per class.
Meanwhile, a cottage industry of gap-year programs and consultants has sprouted in the U.S. Tom Griffiths, founder of GapYear.com a site that serves as a clearinghouse for gap-year programs, says that five years ago, perhaps 1% of his Web traffic originated in the U.S. Now, that figure is 10%. The number of Americans taking gap years through Projects Abroad, a U.K. company that coordinates volunteer programs around the world, has nearly quadrupled since 2005. The organization just launched Global Gap, its first effort marketed specifically to Americans; the 27-week curriculum features service projects in South Africa, Peru, India and Thailand.
Like a year of college, these adventures can be expensive. The price tag for Global Gap is $30,000. Thinking Beyond Borders, a highly respected, eight-month program that parachutes students into third-world communities, costs $39,000. Yes, it’s certainly possible for students to pursue meaningful volunteer work on a smaller budget. But unless kids stay at home and get a paying job nearby, families will likely incur significant expense. The increase in interest suggests that at least some families are willing. “There are now more structured opportunities for students to take gap years,” says David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “That doesn’t happen unless there’s a market to sustain it.”
Why are students attracted to the gap-year concept? According to new survey data from Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, education-policy experts and co-authors of The Gap-Year Advantage, the most common reason cited for deferring college is to avoid burnout. “I felt like I was focused on college as a means to an end,” says Kelsi Morgan, an incoming Middlebury College freshman who spent last year feeding llamas at a North Dakota monastery, interning for a judge in Tulsa, Okla., and teaching English at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. The hope is that after a year out of the classroom, students will enter college more energized, focused and mature. That can be an advantage for colleges too. Robert Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury, did some number-crunching a few years ago and found that a single gap semester was the strongest predictor of academic success at his school.
Most experts recommend securing a spot in college before taking a gap year and warn against using the time off to pad your rÉsumÉ. “Most admissions folks can see right through that,” says Jim Jump, the academic dean of St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. But for students like Lutz, who, after getting rejected from five Ivies, decided to take time off, a gap year can help reprioritize and focus interests. Lutz now plans to apply mostly to non-Ivies that have strong marketing programs. “This experience has really opened my eyes to the opportunities the world has to offer,” she says.
But at least one education expert doesn’t want schools spreading the gap-year message as if it were gospel. In a study that followed 11,000 members of the high school class of 1992 for eight years after graduation, Stefanie DeLuca, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, found that, all things being equal, those who delayed college by a year were 64% less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than those who enrolled immediately after high school. DeLuca did not pinpoint whether these students voluntarily started college late, but at the very least, her work indicates that taking a gap year doesn’t guarantee success. “I’m not going to say that time off does not have benefits,” says DeLuca. “But I think we should be tempered in our enthusiasm.”
No one’s gap-year enthusiasm was more tempered than Olivia Ragni’s. In the spring of 2009, the high schooler from Arkadelphia, Ark., inadvertently missed the deadline to secure her spot at Rice University that fall and was told she would have to wait a year to enroll. “I was really down,” says Ragni, who still cries when recalling the embarrassment of informing her classmates of the unintended deferment. But through two experiential-learning organizations, she spent the year volunteering in a hospital in India, taking intensive Spanish while hiking volcanoes in Guatemala and working at an elephant camp in Thailand. “I gained confidence and independence,” says Ragni, who has just arrived in Houston to start her first term at Rice. “It was the best experience of my life.” The tears have dried up. Consider it a lucky break.
According to an article in USA Today, Costly College Prerequisite: Decorate Dorm, 17.6 billion dollars is expected to be spent on back to school shopping for students in kindergarten through college this year. That’s $527.08 per family – an 18% rise from last year. Back to school shopping falls right behind holiday shopping for retailer’s most profitable season. Why?
Sure, there are some necessities that need to be bought when going back to school. My sons both have a page long list of items that they are required to have on the first day of school – pencils, composition notebooks, scissors, a box of tissues, etc. When I was a kid, schools supplied those things, but budgets are ever tightening and now families are required to buy them. I certainly won’t be buying $527.08 worth of necessary supplies, though. I don’t think anyone will be buying $527.08 of necessary supplies, unless their definition of necessary is different from mine.
There was an entire section at Target dedicated to the necessities for a college dorm room. This was separate from the traditional back to school section with school supplies. This section had coordinated dorm bedding, rugs, lamps, wall hangings and desk top accessories. Other items that many college kids consider necessities are computers (okay, I’ll give them that), microwaves, TV’s, DVD players, gaming consoles, mp3 players, hand held gaming systems, and stereos.
Kohls, Ikea, JCPenney, and other mid-priced retailers all have back to school collections of “must-have” items. And let’s not forget the new clothes. Having to show up to school in last year’s clothes just might make a child die of embarrasment.
Whether it’s stuff for a college student or a kindergarten student, many of the “must-have’s” simply aren’t. I can tell you from experience they aren’t. When I went to college, I lugged the bedding from my home bed including the pillow and comfortor back and forth to the dorms. Same with my towels (all two of them that my mom let me take from the hall closet). My stereo consisted of a radio alarm clock that played cassettes. If I wanted to watch TV, I could have gone to the common room. There was no big “our baby is going to college” shopping trip. But that was (gulp) 20 years ago.
Could today’s college freshmen do the same? Of course, they could. For most kids all it would take would be for a parent to say, “No.” Or better yet, raise them to be responsible, sustainable consumers from a young age so they won’t expect $1285 worth of new stuff (what the average college freshmen spends) when they go off to college.
A typical back to school shopping trip for a grade schooler or high schooler consists not only of paper and pencils but a new backpack, lunch box, shoes, clothes, and locker accessories (yes, locker accessories, I’m not making this up). When parents shop like this for kids when they are young, it’s no wonder college freshmen expect so much and retailers make it so easy for them to buy it in one shopping trip in one section of the store.
It’s time to curb the back to school shopping for so much stuff. Reuse last year’s backpacks and lunch boxes and sneakers and dorm bedding. When you do need to buy items, buy with long term in mind so things won’t go out of style. No self-respecting fourth grade girl will want to go to school with last spring’s High School Musical 2 backpack when everyone knows that Hannah Montana is where it’s at this month. So skip the pop pictures on the backpacks and buy nuetral.
If your kid doesn’t really need it, don’t buy it. Your child won’t die of embarrasment. I know this from experience, too, because my kids are still alive and well and carrying the same backpacks they’ve had for years.