A few months ago, I attended a gap year fair at the elite Harvard-Westlake School in San Fernando Valley. The floor of the gym was rimmed with folding tables bearing pennants and thick brochures about the exciting projects in store for students who take a year off between high school and college.
Exciting – and costly.
For $24,900, a student could spend a year volunteering in Nicaragua through the organization Amigos, staying with a host family. Eight months of studying French and other courses in Paris through API adds up to $27,760. A “gap semester” – actually, two months – in Africa through ARCC Programs, volunteering at a rhino sanctuary, constructing solar panels on rural homes and doing other activities lists for $13,600.
The possibilities are seemingly endless: Patagonia, Nepal, or a “Sea/Mester” on a boat were all there, with prices that ranged as high as $35,000.
The decision by first daughter Malia Obama to wait a year before starting at Harvard has given birth to any number of articles extolling the gap year. More popular in Europe than in America, the year is meant to give students a chance to decompress from the pressures of high school, learn a little about the world and perhaps about their place in it.
In Malia’s case, it’s a sensible option that will allow her to enter college without the glare of being the president’s daughter.
Gap years might have advantages; despite what you may have read, the studies are mixed. For students who can swing it, all power to them.
The problem comes when we glorify gap years as an educational panacea for stressed-out or immature students and fail to recognize that, by and large, they’re out of reach for most students from low-income, working class and middle-middle class families.
They also have become a big business, like so many aspects of getting ready for college – the $100,000 college-counseling service (yes, that’s the right number of zeros), the $300 per hour SAT tutors.
A handful of colleges are helping low-income students with the cost of a gap year, and some programs offer scholarships to the needy, but that leaves out a wide range of families who already earn too much to get meaningful college financial aid, but not enough to pay for a $60,000-a-year private university.
Those families often turn to public universities, which are less likely to sanction a gap year. The University of California says that in general its campuses won’t defer admissions. Neither will California State University.
That means the students must apply during their gap year, which those in the gap-year industry discourage. High schools are set up to help students apply during senior year, not from half a world away. And caught up in the work or adventure of a gap year, experts say, too many students blow their deadlines.
Got financial aid? The feds won’t defer that either, nor will most private schools. Students could work and save money during their gap year, but a high-school diploma won’t get a graduate much more than a minimum-wage job. The higher tuition at their schools over the subsequent four years might outweigh anything they bring in. A few gap programs involve minimal costs or even pay a small stipend – Americorps is the best example – but the numbers are low.
So is the gap year a great new trend? Maybe for Malia, but in general, a year off is yet another symbol of the divide between the educational opportunities for the advantaged versus the rest of the nation’s students.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.