Child Caring

Year off after high school can be best prelude to college

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / February 28, 2002

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As fraternal twins, 17-year-olds Elly and Ted Power of Belmont have never been in lockstep. Come June, they kind of will and kind of won't be: They will graduate from Belmont High School, and they will both defer their college acceptances for a year, but how they spend that year in between schools will be very different.

Elly has applied to work on a three-month archeological dig in Pompei for the summer, and then will work as a dorm assistant at a boarding school outside London, earning room and board. Ted's hope is to be an unpaid intern for a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco for part of the year and then to return to Belmont to live at home and intern in a local architect's office.

Their plans are ambitious and so are their goals. "I'm in love with England, I'm in love with archeology, I'm in love with teaching," says Elly. "This gives me a little taste of it all."

Says Ted: "It's not that I don't want to go to college. I'm stepping back to think about the choices we make in life so I'll appreciate college more when I get there."

This is the "gap year," writ large.

In years past, when graduating high school seniors chose to take a year off before going to college, family and friends rolled their eyes and translated that as a year to goof off. Times change, though, and so do teenagers. With more high school graduates going to college than ever, the pressure to get A's and B's, to get into a "good" college, indeed, even to know what you want to do with your life, sometimes starts as early as eighth or ninth grade. In this high-stakes competition, it's no wonder some students feel burned out by the end of high school.

The gap year is a chance to step off the treadmill, but it's not intended as a vacation.

"Students who benefit most from a gap year are not those who take the year off and find something interesting to do but those who have something that interests them and shape a year around it," says Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Dartmouth has seen the number of students choosing a gap year increase slowly but steadily in the past five years, from 15 to 20 to a whopping 41 last year, when the school actively encouraged it. Harvard College, which for 20 years has urged incoming freshmen to consider a gap year, also has seen the numbers inch higher, from 30 two years ago to 54 last year.

It's not usually the high school seniors but their parents who need the encouragement, says Harvard director of admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis. "We want parents to understand that it is a worthy option to consider and a very legitimate one," she says. "Students who come here after a gap year are more mature, more focused. They make better use of their college experience."

Earlier this winter, when Beverly Hesel, youth advisor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Belmont, put together a gap year evening for seniors and their parents, it was the parents she was after. "A lot of them are afraid of it," she says. "They see it as risky."

She is not one of those parents. Her daughter, Kate, now a freshman at Colorado College, took a year off last year, and daughter Margo, a high school senior, will take one next year. "I can't say how great it was," she says of Kate's experience, which ranged from working at a smoothie bar in the Virgin Islands to spending four months of community service in South Asia.

Kate returned with a new-found appreciation for the United States and a new idea of what she wanted to do with her life. "She's interested in cultural anthropology. She never even knew what it was before she went," says Hesel.

Parents have a right to be skeptical of a gap year but of the specifics, not the concept, says psychologist and author Carol Maxym, an educational consultant in Annapolis, Md.

"For a student to stay home and veg out on the couch watching TV is a bad plan," she says. She likes to see students do something "gutsy," meaning something outside the parameters of the life they have led until now, including taking some financial responsibility for themselves. Maxym is co-author of "Teens in Turmoil, A Path to Change for Parents, Adolescents and Their Families" (Viking).

The worry parents most often voice is that a student will decide not to go to college, but educational consultant Phyllis Steinbrecher of Westport, Conn., says the opposite is more likely to be true: "Students gain a reason why they want to go." For the few students who do decide not to attend, Maxym says, "They likely would have been dropouts anyway."

For uncertain parents, Maxym offers this rule of thumb: "Is a student talking in negative terms of all the things he doesn't want to do or in positive terms of the things he does want to do? To the negative student who says, `I don't want a plan, I've had too much structure,' my response is, `Sorry, Charlie, that's not a gap year, that's immaturity. You're 18, you have a diploma, you can get a job and be on your own, but I can't support doing nothing." If he says, "You're forcing me to go to college," her answer would be, "There are two activities I can support: College is one. A gap year with a plan is another."

Cornelius Bull, director of the Center for Interim Programs in Cambridge and the self-anointed father of the gap year in this country because he began pushing for its acceptance more than 20 years ago, is blunter about why parents should embrace a gap year.

"It costs $1,000 a week to send a student to college, and most kids who go don't know what they are doing or why they are there," he says. "After a gap year, where a student has stepped out of his value system, learned another language, lived with another family, earned room and board, traveled to a Third World country, or who knows what, he's reached into parts of himself he never knew were there. That student knows why he's going to college and that parent is getting his money's worth."

Maxym says the gap year works well because it comes at the right time developmentally. "This is the point in life when you really want a taste of freedom," she says. "By the time a [gap-year] student gets to college, he doesn't need to party every night because he's already been free. The need to party is out of his system."

It's liberating intellectually, too. "When you have a real-world experience, you're better able to think about your education and what you want to do with it," says Furstenberg. "It makes for students who have a more intrinsic interest in learning. They're a bit more intellectual and more curious. Frankly, I'd be thrilled if more students did this."

Although the gap year is routine in England, it is only beginning to gain acceptance here, and there is speculation that the events of Sept. 11 may boost interest in it: Some students may not feel safe leaving to home.

Not surprisingly, a new industry is sprouting up around it. Bull and Steinbrecher have been advising high school seniors for 20 and 27 years, respectively, and Steinbrecher says the number of organizations sponsoring gap-year programs has more than doubled in three years. Most colleges have no requirements for what a student does in the deferred year but, interestingly, Furstenberg says the best gap-year experience is the one a student plans him or herself.

"If someone else is doing the searching and planning, you're buying structure," he says. "That's just like high school. Half of the benefit comes from a student researching and making a plan on his own."

Brad Power, who encouraged his son and daughter to take a gap year, is proud of the initiative each is taking to find just the right mix of activities.

Ted Power, in the middle of his research, has names of Bay Area filmmakers from the Stanford Film Society mailing list. Elly used the Web to find four archeological programs she liked, then e-mailed the professors in charge. She found boarding schools on the Internet, too. Hesel's daughter, Kate, went to South Asia through Youth International, a program she also found on the Internet.

On the other hand, consultants can narrow choices. Bull prides himself in matching students' interests to a program. He charges a one-time, $1,900 fee, which covers a six-year period, just in case a student wants a gap year between the junior and senior year of college, too.

Two gap years? Now that could make a parent nervous.

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