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Malia Obama's 'Gap Year' Highlights Growing Trend In U.S.


Malia Obama is opting for a different path in her studies, and some might say it's a renegade move - a gap year. After she graduates from high school next month, the first daughter will take a year off before beginning college at Harvard. She's part of a growing trend among the college-bound, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The number of American kids taking a gap year has been rapidly rising for the past decade, sometimes by 30 percent a year. Today, some 40,000 young people take the year off, but many expect Malia's news to change that.

ETHAN KNIGHT: We've seen yesterday the amount of web traffic that we normally in almost a full month, 2,600 times the amount of inquiries. That's correct - 2,600 times.

SMITH: Ethan Knight, the executive director of the American Gap Association says Malia's decision basically legitimizes a gap year as a viable option.

KNIGHT: All of a sudden, it's not just for students who are failing or students who are incredibly burnt out. But it puts it into the perspective of this could be good for all students.


KNIGHT: Thank you. What a whirlwind of a day and a weekend.

SMITH: Today happens to be the annual gap year convention in Boston.

KNIGHT: We'll have learning differences on a gap year with Jacqueline Jewett, what makes it transformational with Rob Smarika -

SMITH: There are hundreds of gap or bridge programs across the U.S. with names like Carpe Diem, Taking Off and LEAPNOW. They offer teens everything from a year of ethnic dancing to touring the art museums of Europe or trying to combat racial prejudice in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Marie Schwartz started a gap program clearinghouse called TeenLife after her own teens made her realize how much this generation especially needs this kind of experience.

MARIE SCHWARTZ: I was so upset that they were in this bubble and they weren't learning life skills they needed. Everything's been done for them. So the point is get out of your comfort zone. Learn to be independent. Develop some grit.

SMITH: Of course, there are many students whose everyday struggles at home already provide more than enough of that. And gap year programs could cost tens of thousands of dollars, a luxury many can't afford. Harvard School of Education lecturer Rick Weissbourd says it's important gap years don't end up as one more advantage available only to the well-off.

RICK WEISSBOURD: And I think this is an area where we really have to be creative and think about different ways to make this work for kids across the economic spectrum.

SMITH: For example, Weissbourd says more programs could blend travel and work. Or, if gap years counted for college credits, students could use financial aid. Florida State University has just started offering a small scholarship for gap years. Like most state schools, FSU never used to allow students to defer. But this year, the school did a 180, emailing every new student and encouraging them to take a gap year. FSU's Joe O'Shea says it will likely mean more headaches for admissions.

O'SHEA: It's a real worry that institutions have. And if it really, really scales and we're seeing hundreds and hundreds of students take a gap year, that might make it more difficult. But we think it's worth it. We'll get better students at the university who've had a life experience that is so transformational. They could be leaders on campus.

SMITH: Often it's parents who are most skeptical of gap years.

KERRI BUOUY: My mom wouldn't allow me (laughter).

SMITH: Kerri Buouy, a sophomore at Howard University, says her mom worried she'd never want to come back to college after a gap year.

BUOUY: Not that it's a waste of time but, you know, like, it would be hard trying to get back into, like, the flow of doing school all over again. And, you know, I don't want to get, like, complacent, I guess you could say.

SMITH: The American Gap Association says only about 10 percent of those who do a gap year don't go back to school. And, they add, the vast majority not only return, they also do better and graduate sooner. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.