ELAINE BARR, 19, spent several months last year feeding snakes, foxes and even a polar bear. It was all part of an internship in the wildlife department of EcoTarium, a small museum in Worcester, Mass. Her internship there was the first of three she did that constituted her so-called gap year, time Barr took off between high school and college to gain real-world experience in areas that interested her.
"My last year of high school was kind of hard for me," says Barr, from Wayland, Mass., who says she struggled with stress and depression. So rather than jump into four more years of school work, she arranged a year-long internship program through Dynamy, an experiential education program. "I was interested in a lot of different things. But I wanted to learn more to make sure I was interested in those things. I wanted to get experience before college because learning in a class, you only get one side of a profession."
Most academically-inclined students have a narrowly-defined path set out for them. It's school for 12 years, followed by college for another four. Then faster than you can ask "where's the keg party," it's time to get a job and pay down those student loan debts. But there's no rule requiring every 18-year-old to go straight to college after high school. Every year thousands of high school graduates take a year before college to work, travel, volunteer, or just do something different.
This fall Barr is entering Simmons College, a small liberal arts school in Boston. She says she's entering her freshman year more motivated and excited to learn. "I'm more passionate about my interests. I know this stuff is awesome, and want to do the best I can in college," says Barr.
Paul Wrubel, co-founder of College Company, a San Mateo, Calif.-based firm that helps families find financing for college, says that gap years create better college students by giving them independent-living skills. "If I were running the educational system in this country, I wouldn't let students go to college unless they take a gap year," he says.
The concept of the gap year is more common in the U.K. and Australia. But it's gaining acceptance among American students, parents and colleges as something worthwhile — and not just an opportunity for slacker teens to play videogames at home for months on end. Increasingly, they're realizing taking time off between high school and college can be a valuable detour on the road to higher education — and perhaps even get you into a better school. Gap-year advocates say high school grads who take a break come into that first year of college a more mature, prepared and focused student.
So who wouldn't want to spend a few months walking along the canals in Venice, learning how to order a double espresso in Italian? Most parents, however, have to ask if it's worth taking a year off and pushing back the time their child will graduate from college and start a career. And is it worth the money they'd spend on a program and traveling expenses?
Wrubel concedes, "It's sort of a trade-off. Yes, it can end up costing you money, particularly if you go on certain programs. But it could result in a better value of college; it will enhance the quality of education for your child."
With college tuition for the 2006-07 year reaching $22,000 or more a year for private university (a 5.9% increase from 2005-06), funding your child's gap year may sound unwise. But many programs are low cost or offer a stipend or room and board in exchange for labor.
Indeed, working to finance part or all of a gap year is an important money lesson, says Karl Haigler, author of "The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College." Often students will work for a few months before they do a six-month program. He says living on your own and learning to budget is all part of the education experience. "Always look how you can minimize the cost," Haigler says. "Look for programs that don't cost anything, or where the major cost is getting there and insurance."
The opportunity to rethink college and career options is another benefit of taking a gap year. Say your 17-year-old thinks she wants to study art in college. She takes a gap year, spends three months doing an internship with American artists in France. And after one month she realizes the solitary life of an artist is not for her. Taking the time to figure that out on the ground level can save a lot of time and grief — and maybe money.
Some students take five or six years to finish college because they change majors, drop out, return, or transfer, notes Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a consulting service that helps place students in gap-year programs. (According to a 2005 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, among freshmen who entered college in the fall of 1994, only 36.4% were able to complete their bachelor's degrees within four years, compared with 39.9% a decade earlier. The degree completion rate jumps by nearly to 58.8% if students are allowed six years to complete college.)
Parents usually budget for four years of tuition and are surprised when they learn they'll fall short. "You're talking about one year," says Bull. "How many of these kids know what they want to do? By taking extra time to figure out a major and explore areas of interest, you're going to be a better student."
Bull's firm works with students to plan out their gap years and apply to programs in the U.S. and abroad in fields like social services, the arts, languages, animals and wildlife and conservation. It charges a $2,100 fee, but does offer a number of scholarships every year, she says. A sample gap year might begin in the summer following high school graduation. A student can take a summer job, save money for a cultural study program in Nepal or Ghana, come home for the holidays, re-apply to college if necessary, then in the spring do a political internship at a government watchdog organization in Washington, D.C.
"These are organized, established programs," Bull says. "People need to have a structure in place, so they're not twiddling their thumbs at home, driving their parents crazy."
The issue of college acceptance after the gap year may be another concern for parents. How do college administrators view students who take a year off rather than start college right away? Advocates argue that a gap year might, in some cases, make the difference between getting accepted or not. A would-be student who's spending the year doing something creative and unusual can stand out from the pack when it comes time to apply for school.
Parents might also worry that those who delay college are less likely to go back and complete a degree. But Robert Franek, vice president of publishing at Princeton Review and senior editor of their book "Taking Time Off," says the idea that if you stop going to school right after high school, you're never going to enroll or finish college is a myth. Kids that take a gap year because they don't want to go to school in the first place may not ultimately attend college, but a highly motivated student simply looking to explore the world a bit before settling into four more years of schoolwork isn't likely to turn a gap year into a permanent detour.
My Favorite Year
Gapyear.com (U.K.-based) and goabroad.com are useful and comprehensive portals for searching gap-year programs, whether it's interning or volunteering you're interested in. Many of these organizations are based outside the U.S. and accept students from all over the world. Here are a few sample programs:
1. Adelante Abroad (Offers internship programs in several Spanish-speaking countries)
• Internships in Uruguay in graphic design, law, tourism, marketing.
• Cost: $1,765 for one month; $2,410 for two months; $3,100 for three months. The fee includes accommodation, two-week intensive Spanish-language course.
2. Worldwide Experience
• Shamwari Game Reserve, South Africa: Work as part of the conservation team for four, eight or 12 weeks.
• Cost: £2000 or about $4,070. The price includes flight, accommodation, food, visas and pickup from airport, but does not include insurance.
3. CRAWL (Children Resolution and Women Learning)
• Volunteer program in Calcutta, India
• Duration of program varies (Short term: one month; long term: five to seven months or 10 to 12 months)
• Cost for one month: $389 (includes food, accommodation, language instruction)
• Program includes teaching English, math to poor children; indoor and outdoor games and entertainment programs with kids; participate in craft training program.
4. Atlantic Volunteers
• Volunteer in community projects and local NGOs in Cape Town, South Africa, in areas ranging from fine arts to education to environmental management.
• Programs usually last three to six months.
• Cost: $320 (does not include flight, insurance or housing, though the organization can set participants up in a local home or other low-cost accommodation).
5. Global Quest
• Study abroad programs in Thailand and Ecuador.
• Courses range from environmental science, in which students work with scientific researchers in rainforest research stations; history and culture, in which students live with indigenous tribes and learn how to make dug-out canoes, spears and blowguns.
• Tuition is charged on a sliding scale determined by a student's financial need. Airfare is not included.
• Summer Session (six weeks, Thailand/Ecuador): $6,600-$7,500
• Thailand Semester (12 weeks): $4,500-15,500; Ecuador Semester (12 weeks): $4,500-16,500
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