When Malia Obama decided to take a “gap year” and delay attending Harvard University until 2017, I was a little surprised to see the explosion of articles and blog postings about it. I was aware, of course, that there are always some students who seek experiences outside the classroom, often in far flung parts of the world, before beginning to pursue a degree. What I didn’t know is that the gap year has become a cottage industry, represented by advocacy groups such as the American Gap Association and USA Gap Fairs. I also learned that prestigious colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, UNC, and Tufts offer scholarships, fellowships, and specialized programs to incoming freshman who take a gap year.
Coverage about gap years is positive. The consensus view appears to be that gap years are beneficial if done right, meaning that students have a structured plan and a source of funds. Studies show that teens who take a gap year are more mature when they get to college, are more engaged in education going forward, are more content with their field of study, and tend to do better academically. And there are a lot of choices for students thinking about taking a gap year, among them AmeriCorps, Go Overseas, and Thinking Beyond Borders.
I have no doubt that students who participate in these programs benefit from them, but I also think there is a sense of irony in the term “gap” year. Do economically disadvantaged students or teens not applying to the best colleges have the same options? Is there a “gap” in gap years?
Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab did a study on gap years and found that teens who take a gap between high school and college are six times more likely to come from low-income families, and they’re delaying school because of marriage, children, and other factors–including having to save money to pay for college. These students also took more time off than their wealthier peers, which is problematic because that students who delay entering college by more than one year are less likely complete their bachelor’s degree.
I happen to agree with the proposition that teens from all walks of life would benefit from at least the opportunity to take a gap year, as long as that experience allowed them to volunteer for a cause they cared about or to travel and explore. But access to information and, more importantly, funds will always be a problem for these kids. If a gap year really does help students, then those from wealthier backgrounds applying to prestigious schools will benefit disproportionately, thus increasing the gap in the benefits accrued through higher education.
It is for this reason that I applaud non-profit organizations such as the Service Year Alliance that are extending opportunities for all young people. The organization matches interested students with service opportunities that are paid and full-time. The structure and pay that comes with those opportunities can help to make them more accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds.
At a time when people are questioning the value proposition of higher education due to the college loan crisis and bleak job prospects, there may be something positive about a gap year that could help all students. Higher education, government, and civic society need to put their thinking caps on to see if that is the case.
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