The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Taking a year off

Gap year is gaining popularity among American high school students

First-Year Writing Instructor Diana Howard is helping her youngest daughter, a junior at The Hockaday School in Dallas, explore her options for after graduation. They have talked about potential first-choice and safety schools, studying on the East Coast versus the West Coast, and choosing a public versus a private university.

But Howard is recommending her daughter consider not going to a university at all-at least not during her first year out of high school. Instead, she suggests her daughter take a gap year.

“I think a gap year makes a lot of sense,” Howard said. “The year gives students time to experience a culture outside of their comfort zone, and this experience can’t help but prepare them to be open to new ideas in college.”

A gap year is a period of time taken by a student, usually after high school, before starting under graduate school or before beginning a career, to explore interests and passions through travel and a variety of jobs across the globe.

A British tradition that formed in the 1960s, the gap year is now gathering popularity in the United States. Although there is no national database that tracks students in gap years, guidance counselors and college admissions officers across the nation are saying they’re seeing a surge in interest.

Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, the first independent gap year counseling service in the U.S., says she has noticed a significant increase in awareness of the gap year option. Bull says increased media attention is spurring a greater number of queries to her offices, and she is looking to hire another counselor on the West Coast to meet the increase in demand.

This past spring, high schools in seven metropolitan areas hosted gap year fairs in addition to college fairs so that students could familiarize themselves with gap year programs.

“I think that shows the niche for gap year programs is large enough to merit some attention,” Bull said.

The Hotchkiss School, an independent boarding school in Lakeville, Conn., hired a gap year counselor last year, and top-ranked universities like Princeton, Harvard, Tufts and MIT have recently endorsed the gap year. Princeton specifically launched a program called the “bridge year” that will allow first-years to spend a year performing public service abroad before beginning school. The university set a goal for 10 percent involvement from each class, or about 100 students, but will launch a pilot program with 20 students as early as fall 2009.

So what are the advantages of taking a gap year?

“Taking a gap year seems to have quite an impact on attitudes, behaviors and skills,” said Karl Haigler, co-author of “The Gap Year Advantage.” “Gap year students return to college more focused.”

While researching for their newest book, “Gap Year: American Style,” which has not yet been published, Haigler and his wife and co-author Rae Nelson found most students return to college within six months of their gap year more excited about learning and more prepared to apply what they learn to the real world.

Confidently knowing what they would like to study could save students and their parents a lot of time and money. It takes a student an average of 6.2 years to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, and only about 40 percent of those who begin at a public four-year college graduate in four years. With tuition prices increasing, using time in college as an opportunity to explore interests could be a costly decision.

A College Board study reports most students and their families can expect to pay an average of $95 to $1,404 more this year on tuition and fees than last year. Private four-year universities increased tuition by an average of 6.3 percent to $23,712, while public four-year universities increased tuition by an average of 6.6 percent to $6,185.

A gap year program, on the other hand, is estimated at an average cost of $5,000 to $10,000, according to the Center for Interim Programs. The cost is most commonly split between a gap year organizer fee, travel costs and general expenses like visas, insurance, equipment and spending money.

“A lot of students are using college to figure themselves out,” Bull said. “The irony of that is, it will take longer and a lot more money than it would if they had taken a gap year.”

Gap years offer high school students a break from the strenuous demands and increasingly competitive environment of formal academics. According to Haigler and Nelson’s research, gap year alumni say their year away from school gives them the practical skills they wouldn’t otherwise acquire. They return with a stronger respect for other cultures and religions, a better handle on career goals and a better sense of who they are and what is important to them.

“The transition from high school to college seems very abrupt, especially now that I’m in my junior year and the end of high school seems to be drawing close,” explains Katherine Pully, Professor Howard’s daughter. “I think that there are only a few times in your life when you can take a year and do anything you want. It’s not so easy once you have a job and a family.”

Despite its international increase in popularity, the gap year trend is only beginning to affect the decisions of incoming first-years at SMU.

Hilary McIlvain, Assistant Director of Admissions, said the admissions office has only had a few incoming students actually defer enrollment to do a gap year of travel, but that prospective students are talking about it more and more.

Haigler, Nelson and others are encouraging researchers, schools and parents to take the gap year idea seriously and investigate its advantages.

“Students want to make the right decisions when they’re choosing their college,” Haigler explains. “A lot more people are taking their time, looking at college completion rates and costs, and suddenly realizing taking a year out isn’t a bad idea. In fact, it’s often the right thing.”

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