So Malia is Taking a Gap Year

Last week the world learned President and Michelle Obama's daughter Malia is going to take a gap year before she heads off to Harvard in 2017. As the president of a Gap Year organization, I found this intriguing. Would the announcement be a help for the Gap Year industry? Or, would the new spotlight cause all Gap Years to be forthright with their goals for students?

I have to be honest, my Inbox has BLOWN UP with people interested in what a gap year actually provides for students. I received so many questions, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some here for conversation.

1. Is a Gap Year only for Elitist Kids?
The first question for Gap Years comes couched in this class warfare socio-economic group. When the President's daughter decides to take a gap year, it seems as though everyone wants to pin her decision on the upper class of people who can write the check to afford it.

Again, I run a Gap Year, so I get this question all the time in different forms. People are wary of a program that costs so much money outside the "normal" academic rhythm of our culture. We've been trained to think the only way to enter the market place is to finish a degree program at a formal institution. And I get it.

Gap Years are out of the norm. They are a growing trend, but you'll be hard pressed to find a large percentage of graduating high school students at the local high school willing to take a Gap Year. We're not opposed to spending tens of thousands of dollars to go off to University, but somehow spending money on a year away from the previous institution warrants the label "elitist."

I would propose that a Gap Year isn't an elitist idea. Rather, it's about re-orienting your academy dollars to work for you rather than against you. Today, only 60 percent of incoming Freshman University students will actually finish a four year degree. That means 40 percent of students will go off spending an incredible amount of money to "find themselves" and what they want to do. So what's wrong with allocating those dollars to a program that will cut the time, energy, and resources helping students navigate University?

Today, Gap Year graduates who enter University actually graduate in 3.75 years (on average) instead of the allocated 5 years allowed for government assisted finances. That's a whole 2.25 years in allocated University dollars. So if you're planning on going to University, a Gap Year might actually save you money, rather than seeming like a wasted figure.

2. Are Gap Years as Diverse as University Today?
This is the question on the table with The American Gap Association. We are working diligently to find places where we can provide a wide swath of available Gap Years that would suit every race, religion, and background. Do we have work to do? Of course we do.

But I would offer we are far ahead of the University in relation to origin. Although Gap Years have been around for a long time, America is just waking up to the trend. The fact we are already talking about this issue at the beginning of our formal association is indicative that we will achieve this diversity gap quicker than our formal academy friends.

That doesn't mean we're there yet, but we're working hard to try and provide a meaningful Gap Year to members of every socio-economic background. Some Gap Years are expensive because of the programmatic nature of the operation. Some are less expensive due to their local community focus. It's not that different from shopping for a University. You can go to Stanford for $62K a year, or you can go to a local community college for much less. The bottom line is, as a group of organizations we're trying to provide all levels of onramp for all people.

3. Will my student go to University after taking a Gap Year?
Obviously this is an impossible promise to make any family. We don't know with any degree of certainty if a student will take a Gap Year and go back to academia. But what we do know, at least in our program, every student who has graduated our program has gone on to further their education at some higher level.

We are proud to be a bridge between secondary education and the University. And, in fact, most tier one institutions are promoting the Gap Year to help students enter higher education with some degree of experience, rather than coming in as a young inexperienced freshman. According to admission counselors at the University level, they are tired of applications that are filled with fluff of extra curricula activities, and are now trying to promote students who seem to have a holistic view of their community and vocational choices.

Asking a 17 year old to decide what they want to do with the rest of their life is a daunting task. A Gap Year can give students experience in a wide variety of vocational choices, if the Gap Year choice has an intentional mission to link students with their passion and desire.

4. Is the Gap Year Scalable?
This is the most interesting question for me. If we believe the Gap Year is such a helpful tool for students, can we create a bandwidth big enough to embrace large numbers of participants. Again, we have a lot of work to do as an industry to reach out and help make our programs scalable to the level of the University. But at the current moment in history, we're all just trying to give individual attention to each student.

For those who are critical of Gap Years, I understand. It's a new concept for the majority of Americans. It feels like a student is just postponing the inevitable. It may create a question concerning the cost/benefit of a student who attends. But all those concerns can be answered on careful inspection of the Gap Year you may choose to investigate.

I've found the Gap Year to be a brilliant answer to student loan issues, changing majors in the middle of the University Stream, guidance for students to focus on where they choose to be in life, and helpful to create a more well rounded student to enter the next phase of life.

Certainly, Gap Years aren't for everyone, and no one is presuming every student needs a Gap Year. But for those who are interested in exploring their interests before they begin solidifying their academic records, a Gap Year can be very helpful.

Andy Braner
KIVU Gap Year

Graduating from high school and taking the next big step toward college can be daunting, so a growing number of students are choosing to take a gap year to focus on personal growth. Whether you spend a year traveling, volunteering or working, we'd love to share your story. If you'd like to contribute a text or video piece, please email and tell us all about your experience.