An Often Costly Year to Bridge the Gap Between High School and College
An Often Costly Year to Bridge the Gap Between High School and College
Chang W. Lee, New York Times, 10/4/2013, original
My older son is about a month into his freshman year at college, and like most of his classmates, is adjusting to new roommates, classes and doing his own laundry.
But not all his friends are engrossed in campus life. One is doing volunteer work in South America. Another is preparing to go to Israel.
They’re taking gap years, a break between high school and college that traditionally begins in the fall. There are no national statistics on the number of students taking gap years, but there’s no question the idea – and the number of companies offering gap year programs — is growing in popularity.
USA Gap Year Fairs began in 2006 with seven fairs at high schools. About 10 companies and several hundred people showed up, said Robin Pendoley, chief executive of Thinking Beyond Borders, a nonprofit group that arranges gap year programs. His company also helps organize the fairs.
In six years, that number grew to 30 fairs in 28 cities with about 40 organizations and 2,500 students attending. This January and February (when the events are typically held), 35 fairs attracted 50 organizations and about 4,000 students.
So what sparked this interest? Holly Bull, a long time gap-year consultant, said it could be when first Prince Harry, then Prince William, took a gap year, which are very common in Britain.
“That was a certain kind of endorsement from the Brits,” said Ms. Bull, whose organization, the Center for Interim Programs, has been doing gap year consulting since 1980.
Prince Harry’s gap year in 2003 between high school and entering the military stretched to two, and involved many photos in the British press of the young royal on horseback, learning to be a cattle hand in Australia.
British gap years tend to be looser and less structured than those in the United States and are often seen as “end up on a beach and get drunk,” said Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association, which accredits and sets standards for gap year programs.
But they’re also often cheaper. And that’s an important point, because many American gap year programs – and they are a mix of nonprofit and for-profit — run to $10,000 and up for about three months. String a few of those together and you’re paying the equivalent of a year’s college tuition.
That’s what Steve Warner found out when his son Elliot came home during the summer and said he wanted to take a gap year instead of going to the California college he was scheduled to attend in the fall.
So he made an agreement with Elliot: he and Elliot’s mother would pay for the programs if Elliot picked up the costs of all the backpacking, hiking and diving equipment and some of the extras.
“We’ve spent about half a year’s tuition,” on the programs, Mr. Warner said, including $4,500 on a six-week reef conservation program in Belize, $14,850 on an 11-week National Outdoor Leadership School in Australia and about $5,000 on flights.
But during part of his gap year, Elliot plans to work on organic farms where his room and board are free in exchange for his labor.
Anyone can take a gap year, or month, at any age, but the term most often refers to – and the programs are most often aimed at – teenagers who have decided to take a break between high school and college.
In many cases, they are already accepted at their choice institution and most have no problem postponing their admission for a year.
But I can hear the cries already: Why pay for them to take a year off? Let them work! They’ll learn more from a year scooping ice cream or waiting tables than gallivanting around the globe.
And that certainly is an option, or a necessity, for some students. Students who want to earn money or at least not spend a lot can follow Ben Moss’s path and work in an inner-city school for a year.
Mr. Moss had no interest in a gap year and was happily planning to attend Lehigh University in the fall.
“I wanted to go to college at the same time as all my friends,” Mr. Moss said. “My parents forced me to go to a gap year fair and for the most part it was for-profit companies that say, ‘Pay us to go to a third-world country.’ But there were two guys in red jackets and I went over to them and in 10 minutes they had completely changed my mind.”
He had found City Year, which places people ages 17 to 24 in schools in 25 locations around the country in an intense effort to stem the dropout rate in lower-income areas.
“I went to a large, diverse school and I’ve seen the achievement gap firsthand,” said Mr. Moss, who is now working full time at Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science in East Harlem. And the fact that he is paid an annual salary of $12,100 helps.
“I’m not in it for the money, but it gave me the impression they needed us,” he said.
In addition, if he works 1,700 hours or more, he will receive a $5,500 academic scholarship, which many colleges and universities match.
Mr. Moss says he does not intend to go into education but feels the skills he is learning, like teamwork, time management and working through tough situations, will help him in any job.
But getting into City Year, which receives one-third of its funding from AmeriCorps, a federal national service program, may feel a bit like applying to college. Melanie Brennand Mueller, vice president of recruitment and admissions at City Year, said only one in five applicants was accepted and the number of applications had increased over the last year. This year, 2,700 people participated.
Some parents, however, consider a costly program to be an investment in the future.
Sally Cantwell’s son wanted a breather between high school and college, but “our attitude was, this is not a luxury,” Ms. Cantwell said. “We wanted Simon to learn a skill.”
So he earned his ski instructor certification over 10 weeks in New Zealand (which cost about $12,000 for instruction, airfare, room and board), and then spent the winter working at Deer Valley, Utah, where he will return this ski season.
One thing Ms. Cantwell, who is British and well versed in gap years, also didn’t want was a program that was “too structured. We wanted Simon to learn to handle things on his own.”
Most American parents don’t have the same inclination and prefer to know exactly how, when and where everything will happen.
And that can be a shame, Ms. Bull said, because “you might miss out on some very quirky placements. And if it’s nothing but structured, leader-led programs for the whole year, you’re missing something.”
But all parents want to ensure their children are in a reputable program, something that’s not always so easy to figure out.
That’s why an accreditation system has been developed, Mr. Knight said, with the first programs in the final stages of the process.
“It’s 54 pages long with five different certificate levels,” he said of the criteria. For service programs, for example, the company must show how it prepares students, how involved students are in the project and how involved the community is. Another focus is on safety, and how local transportation and activities such as ropes courses and scuba diving are vetted.
While no federal agency develops its own credentials, Mr. Knight said the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission had authorized his organization as the sole body to develop standards for accreditation for gap year programs.
There are lots of ways to do a gap year and lots of good reasons to do it. But there is one bad reason, Ms. Bull said: “Hoping it will get you in a better college.”