Is a gap year after high school a good idea? Experts divided
Malia Obama's decision to postpone entry to Harvard University after she graduates high school in June has brought national attention to teens taking a "gap year" before college.
Students who put off college for a year of travel, public service or other nonscholastic activities are relatively rare in the Northwest suburbs, an unscientific survey of local high schools indicates.
It's a practice that draws strong objections from some high school guidance counselors.
"They need to set goals and adhere to them, (and) when they take time away they lose touch with their skills," said Brian Roy, who leads the guidance department at Wauconda High School. "We do not encourage them to take a break."
Other educators are more open to the concept.
Dan Miller, a college counselor at Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School, said a gap year can be "extremely beneficial" to a student's overall well-being.
"As school counselors, we talk about the importance of self-care, and the pursuit of a gap year allows kids to recharge for an entire school year by traveling or participating in community service or other activities that interest them before diving into the rigors of higher education," said Miller, a former admissions officer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "This process of self-discovery and gaining independence by exploring endless opportunities are huge benefits of a gap year."
Jae Vyskocil, a 2015 Geneva High School graduate who recently returned from a gap year mostly spent abroad, certainly feels that way.
Working with a program called Kivu Gap Year, Vyskocil traveled to Denver, the Bahamas, Peru, Israel, Tanzania and India during the past nine months.
But it wasn't a global vacation. Vyskocil worked in a homeless shelter and a facility for victims of sexual violence, learned about the tensions in the Middle East, and spent time with people whose ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds were dramatically different from hers.
"My world view has shifted so much," said Vyskocil, who plans to study visual communications at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I don't see the marginalized people of this world as the 'other' anymore."
Of course, Vyskocil's adventure isn't the usual path for suburban high school graduates.
Gap years are "not typical" for graduates of the six schools in Arlington Heights-based Northwest Suburban High School District 214, either, spokeswoman Jennifer Delgado said.
That's also the case at Mundelein High School. Those occasional college-bound graduates who take a year off from their studies typically have financial reasons, Guidance Director Tom Buenik said.
"Once in a while, we have a student who says they are taking a year off to save money to go to school," Buenik said.
Programs are costly
Formal gap year programs that involve international travel aren't cheap.
The Kivu Gap Year program costs more than $18,000 per semester, and most teens go for two semesters, said Luke Parrott, Kivu's co-founder and director.
That covers room, board, airfare, weekend events, mentorship and excursions such as mountain climbing, he said. Kivu doesn't offer scholarships, so students often run fundraisers to help cover the costs, he said.
Another program run by Thinking Beyond Borders costs $14,000 for one semester or $36,000 for two semesters, founder and CEO Robin Pendoley said. Scholarships are available.
Other programs are less expensive.
For example, Adventures in Missions offers semester- and yearlong programs abroad that range from a few thousand dollars to about $13,000.
Pendoley admits socio-economic factors prevent some students from taking gap years.
In his experience, wealthier students and their families feel more comfortable taking a year off between high school and college. Teens from poorer or middle-class families, however, often are told college is their route to success, and they may consider a year off a distraction from that goal, Pendoley said.
"They may see it as a threat to their ability to complete college," he said.
Even so, demand is up. Thinking Beyond Borders' enrollment has increased 40 percent in each of the last three years, Pendoley said.
Participation in Kivu's programs is rising, too, Parrott said.
"Our students desire to discover more about themselves and the world around them," Parrott said. "They desire to gain cultural intelligence and have hands-on experience in challenging contexts."
A personal decision
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the decision to take a gap year is a personal one for students and their families.
"Our position is that we want students to feel prepared and excited when they come to Illinois, whether it's the fall after their high school graduation or later," Kaler said.
Northern Illinois University officials say students considering taking a gap year should delay applying for admission until they're ready to begin their studies. Students can't apply to NIU and then take a year off before starting school, a spokeswoman said.
Wauconda High's Roy compared the impact of a gap year on a student's educational abilities to a golfer abandoning the game for a while. The time away will affect their skills.
He said taking a gap year should be reserved for a special circumstance "or even an unplanned pregnancy."
Buenik is more positive about the gap year experience, saying it's an opportunity for personal growth, especially if the student travels or volunteers.
But he's also concerned students who take a year off may forget some of what they've learned in school or have trouble "getting back into the pace" of school life.
"During a gap year, some students may lose some of that (school) structure and most likely some of the content and skills they have learned throughout their high school careers," he said. "It may take a little time to get readjusted to being a student again."
Ashleigh Gerlach, a 2010 Conant High School graduate, speaks highly of her gap year and the impact it's had on her life.
Instead of going right to college, Gerlach joined a Kiva program and traveled to Rwanda, Tanzania and the Philippines.
She organized a personal fundraising campaign to cover about half the trip's cost.
Afterward, she attended Harper College in Palatine for two years and then took a semester off. She now expects to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing this winter from North Park University in Chicago.
Gerlach credits the time she spent learning about health care in the Philippines for her career focus.
"I wanted the hands-on of nursing," said Gerlach, of Schaumburg. "I love what I do now. I love what nursing is. And I attribute all of that to the gap year."