In the early 2000s, English Princes William and Harry took gap years after finishing boarding school, postponing their studies in order to travel to countries like Chile and unwittingly starting a trend among young Americans who just didn't quite feel ready for college.
Sixteen years later, first daughter Malia Obama could have the same effect on other students weighing their options for higher education.
Historically a European tradition, the so-called gap year has recently grown in popularity in the United States amid mounting research it can help students be less anxious about and more prepared for advanced study. As the trend has developed, so too has a cottage industry of international gap year website directories, program leaders and academic counselors who have been forced to wrestle with growing pains in the form of issues like accreditation. However, industry experts say Malia Obama’s choice to delay school could give the gap year field a desperately needed layer of credibility and bump up business even further.
“Someone like this coming out and being willing to take this chance is, I think, a huge boon for the industry as a whole,” said Andrea Wien, a board member at the American Gap Association, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. “More and more people are starting to think about ‘Maybe this is an option for my student.’”
To recap, the White House revealed Sunday that the elder first daughter would attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2017. Instead of starting her studies this fall, as is typical of American high school graduates, Malia Obama is planning to take a gap year while her father wraps up his time in office.
Students began taking gap years in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when people in the United Kingdom began traveling to Asia before attending university. In 1978, the British Prince Charles served as the patron of Operation Drake, a two-year circumnavigation of the world conducted by young people, and by the '90s, gap years were considered “cool” and “hip,” according to gapyear.com. As of 10 years ago, the global gap year travel industry was worth about 5 billion pounds ($7.3 billion).
The trend crossed the pond only recently, and it’s by no means mainstream: Only about 2 percent of newly minted high school graduates in the U.S. take time off before heading to college. But the benefits of the gap year are numerous. Gappers, as they’re colloquially called, are more likely to graduate on time, have higher grade-point averages, volunteer and be satisfied with their eventual careers than their peers, according to the American Gap Association’s 2015 national alumni survey.
Of course, not all students go abroad during their gap years. Many stay home, work to save up for school, spend time with family, travel domestically, volunteer locally or just take time to explore their personal interests before starting college. Although we don’t know what Malia Obama is going to do during her gap year — maybe go back to the set of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” or perhaps just ride out Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from underneath the Resolute desk — she certainly has options.
If she chooses to go abroad, she will find gap year experts have set up scores of international programs that hook students up with volunteer opportunities, internships and cultural exchanges in other countries for a price.
“In the past five years, we’ve gone to 1 percent to 2 percent of high school seniors taking a gap of some type. That’s a doubling in the market,” said Robin Pendoley, the founder of Thinking Beyond Borders, a gap year nonprofit based in San Rafael, California. “On the provider side, there’s been an explosion.”
Many companies that organize gap year experiences are simply college study abroad businesses or adventure groups that have seen an opening and taken it — “basically travel agents offering voluntourism opportunities to go hang out in Europe or whatever it may be,” Pendoley said. But there are some companies doing it right, he said, recognizing their 17- and 18-year-old clients have unique educational and developmental needs and catering to them.
Pendoley’s Thinking Beyond Borders, for example, offers three gap year programs. One lasts 13 weeks, costs about $15,000 and includes travel to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Another, also lasting 13 weeks and costing about $15,000, includes travel to Thailand, Cambodia and China. The longest and most expensive, at seven months and about $36,000, is a global tour that makes stops in South Africa, India, Cambodia, Ecuador and Peru. In all cases, students live with host families, travel in groups and attend daily seminars with professional educators.
This year, Thinking Beyond Borders is set to take about 80 students on gap year trips. Next year, Pendoley predicted that number will be more than 100.
Programs have to bridge students’ high-pressure high school environments, where there’s a huge focus on grades and test scores, with college, where they can set their own expectations, Pendoley said. Programs like his, he added, are specifically designed to help students find their purpose. They need to balance structure with independence.
A cursory Google search shows that the modern gap year industry is more or less divided into three branches: gap year programs, websites that list gap year programs and counselors who help students sift through websites and gap year programs. The websites are a relatively new development and present a unique challenge — “because it’s a growing field, how do you know if something is well-run or not?” said Holly Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs, a counseling organization with offices in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Princeton, New Jersey.
The Center for Interim Programs is a consulting service that's helped more than 6,800 gappers over its 36 years in business. Students who come across Bull’s website fill out an interest sheet with basic biographical information, their preferred destinations and what kinds of opportunities they enjoy. They can indicate whether they're interested in boats, Buddhism, elder care, fashion, forestry, graphic design, guitar-making, human rights, kayaking, sled dogs, whales or woodcraft.
Then the center sets up a free 90-minute interview, held in person, by phone or via Skype, during which a counselor peppers the customer with questions about what they’d like to do with their gap year, Bull said. At the end of the session, people have the option to sign up for additional professional help. A lifetime membership costs $2,600 and comes with scholarship benefits.
From there, the counselors help students navigate programs that will accept them and actually take them on the trip. Bull said most students take advantage of shorter programs because they're less of a time and money commitment. She described the experience as a student striking a series of matches to see what catches fire — during her gap year in Hawaii, for example, she gave marine biology a shot and quickly “blew that one out.”
The Center for Interim Programs has a list of about 200 vetted programs to which it refers students, but Bull noted that formal accreditation within the gap year industry is difficult because standards vary based on what a client's hoping to accomplish. For instance, Bull tends to shy away from hyperorganized programs that don’t let students spend enough time alone. She said she knew one young woman who got lost in Greece on a trip to study sea turtles and later proclaimed that having to find her way into town was the best part of her gap year.
“In my mind, it’s really about a human being having a choice in their life about what they’re up to,” Bull said, adding that those goals vary. “I think you’re going to miss something by not nudging students out.”
Projects Abroad, a volunteer organization based in New York, offers both prearranged trips to places such as Nepal and an option where students create their own global gap year itinerary. The customized global gap year program lets students combine various projects in various countries, program adviser Elizabeth Cauchois wrote in an email.
Projects Abroad’s most popular destinations are Argentina, Ghana, Nepal and Peru. Cauchois said it’s difficult to pinpoint a number of students who took gap years specifically — her company also offers winter- and summer-break trips — but about 400 participants last year were between 18 and 19. The number rises every year.
“Some of this can be attributed to the rebounding economy, but can also be attributed to a cultural shift where it is more common to take time off to travel,” Cauchois said. “The idea of going straight from high school to college to a job for the next 30 or so years has dramatically changed, and it has become much more commonplace to take some time to decide what it is you want to do in life and how you can make that a reality.”
No matter the cause, the gap year business is certainly expanding. Wien, of the American Gap Association, spoke Monday from the organization’s second annual conference, where attendance had doubled from the year before. She added that USA Gap Year Fairs, which puts on events across the country where students and parents can peruse their options, have seen a 300 percent increase in interest.
While the industry grows, business leaders are tackling the accreditation challenge: The American Gap Association has set up a process to measure gap year programs by a set of rigorous standards. To date, 12 have passed the test, which requires in part that organizations challenge students’ comfort zones, make rules about alcohol use, maintain certain staff-to-student ratios, have CPR-trained staff members and be properly insured.
The future of the gap year field may be bright, but its specific path varies depending on who you're talking to.
Pendoley, for one, said he thought gap years could wind up becoming part of the higher education system for reasons related to climbing tuition costs. Colleges may offer their students the option of spending part of their freshman years off campus. Some already have: Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, recently launched Tufts 1+4, which gives students a structured year of service either in the U.S. or abroad before they start their typical four-year terms.
Meanwhile, Harvard is one of the more than 5 percent of four-year institutions that allow admitted students to defer their admission for a year without penalty, the Wall Street Journal reported. The school’s website says it encourages students to take “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way” as long as they don’t enroll somewhere else.
These sorts of changing attitudes could help destigmatize gap years, as well. Mandi Schmitt, the public relations and special projects director at Go Overseas, an international program review site in Berkeley, California, said the industry is still struggling with its reputation. “Europe and Australia have gotten on board. In America, it’s deemed as irresponsible, lazy and kind of the counter to doing a responsible four-year institution,” she said.
That’s where Malia Obama’s decision to take time off before Harvard could make a big impact. Gap-year clients are generally young and depend on their wary parents to approve of — and fund — their activities. The fact that the president of the U.S. is allowing his daughter to take a gap year will likely go a long way, just as it did with the British royals, Schmitt said.
“Even just reading the news, hearing the word ‘gap year’ helps parents be more comfortable with it,” she said.
Go Overseas’ web traffic has been climbing. A year ago, the gap year section of the site was bringing in about 1,000 visitors a month. Now, it’s around 5,000, Schmitt said. And the first daughter’s decision could help keep spreading awareness.
“I’ve seen a lot more interest in students trying to branch out from the status quo,” Schmitt said, then referenced her own high school-to-college transition. “I’m just really jealous that I missed this.”