The Gap Generation

Hopping Off The College - Bound Train

September 30, 2008

The Gap Generation
     If all had gone according to plan, Henry Ladd would have been just starting his first year at Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio) in fall 2000-picking out books, registering for classes, hanging out at Mudd Library. Instead, October found him living in a trailer in the Florida panhandle clearing brush for $50 a month and trying not to mess with a nearby alligator that also called the swamp home.

"I saw him once, but not too close," Ladd says. "Far enough away to run."

A half year later, still with his parents' blessing, he was in a rain forest a little farther south, on an Outward Bound hiking trip through Costa Rica. Now that he's finally at Oberlin, Ladd wouldn't have had it any other way.

"It was an amazing experience," he says of his year off. "I would recommend it to anyone who could do it."

When he wrote to Oberlin two years ago asking the college to defer his admission, Ladd joined the ranks of students who elect to take a "gap" year between high school and college. No one knows for sure how many of the United States' 2.5 million graduating seniors do this each year, although it's a tiny percentage of the whole; estimates range from 1,500 to 25,000 "gappers." However large it is, many observers say the number is growing. And certainly admission offices and guidance counselors alike are responding to the trend.


"I know it's on the increase, because more and more [students] come by and say, 'I'm thinking about taking a year off'" says Brad MacCowan, director of career and college counseling at Newton North High School, outside of Boston. "It's not a huge number, but it's significant, and it's growing. But it's a very difficult thing to track."

For one thing, MacCowan points out, it's not all that easy to define what a year off A. In England and Australia, the gap year is a well-established fixture among the middle and upper classes, almost always involving travel to a foreign country-and considerable parental subsidy. Most would say that Henry Ladd's year, with its mix of environmental volunteerism and international travel, fits within these general parameters. But would you include the student who spends the year being tutored because his grades don't quite qualify him for the college of his choice? Or the one who wants to work for a year to earn money for college before she even applies? And how about the student who has to stay home to respond to a family medical crisis?

Looking just at the number of programs that have sprung up to assist students (usually well-heeled) who want some time off before or during college is one way to track the increased interest. (See sidebar on page 8.) So is checking out the number of students who defer admission to a particular college in a given year.

At Harvard College (Cambridge, Mass.), for example, 82 of the students who matriculate this fall will do so a full year and a half after they were accepted, says William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard College. Twenty-nine of them were deferred by Harvard itself: "We ran out of spaces and offered them a chance to come a year from now," he says. "But 53 of them decided on their own to take time off, and that number has gone up a fair amount in just one year."

Some of this, Fitzsimmons speculates, might have to do with a well-publicized article he wrote in December 2000, one that happened to end up on the front page of The New York Times. In it, he and co-author Marilyn McGrath Lewis (Harvard College's director of admissions) recommended putting off college entrance for a year as a way to alleviate the increasing pressure put on today's high school students. They wrote: "Burn-out is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one's true passions.

Did Fitzsimmons hear from other admission officers, afterwards, that what's good advice for Harvard's admitted students might not work for other colleges? He laughs, a little ruefully "It does depend," he says. "We had some negative reaction from people—that colleges and universities [like Harvard] are part of the reason for all this pressure. But we weren't arguing that students should make less use of their talents or work less hard at the things they love. We were arguing that to do their best work, sometimes you have to step back." The way they saw it, Harvard--or any college-- is just one stop along the way.

"There are world-class obligations out there: scientific discoveries, achievements in every profession," Fitzsimmons says. "When you look beyond college, we're kind of a way station. We say, 'Go with your heart."


It's worth noting, however, that the vast majority of American high-school graduates go directly on to a two- or four-year college--between 62 and 65 percent, says Barbara Schneider, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. She's spent the better part of a decade studying how American adolescents approach the future. Most of the time, she argues in "The Ambitious Generation" (co-authored with David Stevenson; Yale University Press, 1999), they combine lofty career goals with limited information about the training actually required to achieve them  like the girl who wanted to be a doctor without being clear on the difference between university and vocational school.

"We had some negative reaction from people that colleges and universities [like Harvard] are part of the reason for all this pressure. But we weren't arguing that students should make less use of their talents or work less hard at the things they love. We were arguing that to do their best work, sometimes you have to step back."

-William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard(Cambridge, Mass.)

These "misaligned ambitions" are a recipe for disaster, Schneider says. But she is skeptical about whether taking a gap year is the answer. The number of students who take this option every year is less than 1 percent of graduating seniors as a whole, she says, and they're generally drawn from the wealthiest families. Furthermore, she adds, longitudinal studies of students who enter college a year or more out of high school show they are not necessarily high achievers.

"The young people who delay college have lower test scores and grades and more behavioral problems," she says. "To delay college does not automatically mean you'll be better prepared for college."

And most of the graduating seniors who aren't headed for college in the fall will probably never get there.

"Kids that go to work are working because they don't want to go to college," Schneider says Contrary to popular belief, "they're not working to earn money for college." Cash-strapped students are more likely to take out loans or work part time while in college than to delay higher education.

Schneider stressed the importance of students thinking through what they want for the future before they choose a college or choose time off.  "The most important thing is for kids and parents to come up with a plan, to figure out what they want to get out of a year off," Schneider says. "We're not robots, but we need some sort of definition about where we're going to go."


Harvard being Harvard, Dean Fitzsimmons doesn't have to worry too much that the students who follow their hearts might not come back the following year, or at least might not come back to Harvard. "It does happen, but rarely," he says. But other colleges and universities have to worry about how deferments will ultimately affect their yield. Many require an extra deposit, typically around $200, to hold a student's place in the following year's freshman class.

And some schools reject deferments entirely. "A general rule of thumb [among college counselors] is that if it's a state university, it is much more reluctant to grant a deferment," says Marsha Ray, principal of Student Extended Experiences Counseling (SPEC) in Deerfield, Ill., who last year marched between 45 and 50 students with gap-year programs. "Private schools in general are much more amenable to if, if the student has designed a compelling and credible year."

Ray's business has increased every year-a 30 percent jump between 2000 and 2001, she says-since she incorporated in 1997 to help students design those years. She charges a flat fee of $1,500 to $1,850 for her service. "A lot of people are becoming aware of this option," Ray says. "When Prince William did a gap year, it was in the Ladies Home Journal."

But it's not only high-school seniors who benefit from time off, Ray and others say. College students also seek her guidance for how they might spend time out of class. In fact, Barbara Schneider says, although there's no hard data to confirm increasing interest in a year off between high school and college, colleges' "junior year abroad" is definitely on the upswing. This suggests, Ray says, that a gap year is a good idea no matter when a student takes it. In fact, taking one before college might keep you from burning out in college.

"I've been dealing more and more with college students who come into my office a year or two [after matriculating] with their psychological batteries totally on empty: 'I don't know where I'm going, or if this is the right college,'" Ray says. "Often those students end up taking a sabbatical."


In fact, some colleges build this sabbatical into their admissions strategy.

"We've had 20 students a year [deferring] for at least a decade," says Mike Sexton, Dean of Admissions at Portland, Oregon's Lewis & Clark College (which does require these students to pay a deposit). "There's no increase. Our applicant pool tends to be a pretty adventuresome, international bunch." Three-quarters of the Lewis & Clark students who take a year off do so to travel overseas, he says, which Sexton judges perfectly acceptable at a school that prides itself on its international outlook; a semester abroad is built into the college's curriculum.

So, far from discouraging second thoughts about freshman year, Lewis & Clark takes it all in stride, Sexton says. "We tell students who ask, 'We're used to it-we don't think you're an oddball.'"

Likewise, at the University of Judaism (a Los Angeles school founded in 1947, two years before the state of Israel), the admissions staff encourages international study. However, they see only a "small percentage" of deferment requests in their incoming class-which this year totals around 60 students-according to Assistant Admissions Director Jillian Rothschild. Several of those students may end up at a 10-month-long program in Israel, the Year Course, run by the New York-based Young Judea (whose web site calls it "the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States") but with its academic portion accredited by the University of Judaism.

"I've been dealing more and more with college students who come into my office a year or two (after matriculating) with their psychological batteries totally on empty: 'I don't know where I'm going, or if this is the right college.'  Often those students end up taking a sabbatical"

Marsha Ray, Principal of Student Extended Experiences Counseling (SEEC), (Deerfield, Ill.)


The Year Course in Israel "is geared for high school students to be their freshman year [in college]," Rothschild says. "They can essentially spend their first year abroad." But, she adds firmly: "Admission to the Year Course is exclusive of admission to the University of Judaism." Some of those students may end up at her university; others go on to other schools. And having done the Year Course won't necessarily make you more attractive to the University's admission committee.

"As with most universities, our main concern is fit," she says. "It [taking a gap year] doesn't detract, and it doesn't make the student necessarily more outstanding. Our admission process is very individualized, and we typically work with students for a number of years. If they go on a gap program and come back more mature, that's great."

Depending on the demographics of a school's incoming students, the gap year might have even less impact on admissions-especially since, Ray and others say; most students don't mention their deferment plans until after they've been accepted.

"Each year, out of a freshman class of 800, we're going to have maybe eight to 15 defer," says William Conley, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio). But only a few of those deferments, he judges, are for a traditional gap yean Midwestern schools like Case Western see fewer of these than those on the East and West coasts, he says.

"The gap year is disproportionately an opportunity for the wealthy-for parents who say, 'You can take a year off, and we'll fund it,'" he says. "And it's a fact that you can find more money closer to salt water in this country. For many [in the Midwest], it's [a gap year] not possible."

 So, while he sees interest in taking a gap year on the upswing ("We're seeing more and more who are thinking about it"), the actual number of Case Western students who put off freshman year to take one hasn't gone up. "I'm sure in this pool of admitted students we will get a few," Conley said in March. "But I'm hesitant to say [the numbers are] increasing."


 "I think the problem of kids going on to college without knowing why they're going has always been there,'' says Tim Ellis, founder and executive director of GlobalQuest, a nonprofit company in Maine that provides gap-year semesters in Thailand. His organization, which sent its first group of seven students abroad in spring 2001, is one of a dizzying number of programs available to students looking for ways to spend a year off-or, in GlobalQuest's case, a semester off.

"Young people don't have a clue about the world they're going to grow up in," Ellis says. Right after high school is an ideal time, developmentally, to correct that deficiency by giving them an in-depth experience in a place that's completely different from the environment they grew up in, he says. (He also runs a similar program for college students.) Thailand, which Ellis knows well from 10 years of consulting work there, is "a fabulous classroom. It's different from what the kids are used to, but it's safe and has good health care. There are beautiful national parks; the people are wonderful, warm, inclusive."

Such experience doesn't come cheap. GlobalQuest charges $12,000 per 12-week semester, plus airfare to Thailand. Young Judea's Year Course in Israel costs $12,500, including airfare. These prices, while steep, are comparable to a half year's tuition at a private college, and like private colleges, both Institutions offer financial aid to students who need it.

Traveling with a program within the United States is likely to be less expensive, but it too is hardly a bargain. A month-tong mountaineering course at the well-respected National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), based in Lander, Wyo., will cost $3,100. For a more urban experience, Dynamy (founded in 1969) offers an $11,200 "Internship Year" of community service in and around Worcester, Mass.; students can pick one of 13 subjects, from the arts to technology, to focus on, and also have the option of taking for-credit courses from nearby Clark University.

"The gap year is disproportionately an opportunity for the wealthy for parents who say, 'You can take a year off and we'll fund it' And it's a fact that you can find more money closer to salt water in this country. For many (in the Midwest), it's not possible."
-William Conley, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio)


 And if all you want is to find out what program is right for you, that too may set you back a few bucks. When Henry Ladd deferred his admission to Oberlin, his parents sent him to Robert Gilpin, who had been Ladd's teacher and squash coach at his prep school, Milton Academy, in Milton, Mass. Gilpin, the author of the 1992 book "Time Out: Taking a Break from School" (Fireside, now out of print), founded Time-Out Associates in 1989, a service for students looking for ways to spend a gap year; The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that he charges a $1,600 consulting fee. (His web site,, also offers the option of database access for the more modest cost of $80 to $120.) Gilpin estimates that, over the years, he's helped 2,500 kids like Ladd plan their gap experience.

 "When I go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, I make sure I'm really hungry, because I'd better eat three to four helpings. College is the most expensive buffet there is," Gilpin says. "You have to want what's there. If you go to college, it had better be your choice."

Some parents, especially those who didn't go to college themselves, are fearful that their son or daughter won't go back after their year off. (Fitzsimmons quotes one worried parent:  "How do I know my son isn't going to just follow the Grateful Dead forever?") But Gilpin says he's never seen this happen, "not once." Ultimately, he says, every one of his clients has eventually chosen the buffet that college offers-but with an appetite whetted by a sabbatical year.

"I've talked to parents who say, 'It's taken me 15 years to get my college degree; I don't want my child to go through that,'" Gilpin says. His argument: If these parents had had the chance at 17 to take time out for a breather, they would have been better college students themselves.

"Kids are always better consumers of education once they've come back," GlobalQuest's Ellis agrees. "They are entering college with new interests and a better understanding of what they want to learn."


Despite the high profile of Outward Bound and other expensive experiential-learning programs, Gilpin and others are quick to point out that choosing a gap year isn't just for the well-to-do. "There are more zero-cost options than $25,000 ones," Gilpin says. "[There are] volunteer positions, community service, areas involving the environment, education. But there's a coincidence between the things that don't cost any money and things that need brawn instead of brains."

Ladd, for his part, chose a combination of the two for his year off. For the fall, he lent his brawn to the Florida park service through the Student Conservation Association, supplementing his $50-a-month stipend with money he'd earned the previous summer as a carpenter and painter. But the brainier three-month-long Outward Bound trip to Costa Rica, which also involved scuba diving and climbing a mountain in Bolivia, was a gift from his parents.

"It's a little bit of a privilege to take a year off, certainly," Ladd says. "If somebody is on the fast track, it might not be possible. I've had friends say, 'Oh, I would have liked to do that, but my parents would never have gone for it. 'Still, he says, it's a popular option: "A lot of people at Oberlin have done it."

Gilpin says that doing a variety of things, rather than sticking with one program for the full year, generally works best for students. "I encourage people to do three or four things, if they can," says Gilpin. Whatever the program chosen, he emphasizes the importance of planning and structure, which Ladd found helped him make his case with his future alma mater as well.

"They were fully supportive," Ladd says of Oberlin's reaction to his request for deferment. "They encouraged taking a year off as long as you had a plan-that you're not sitting around home rotting your brain."


What makes taking a year off so attractive? Part of it has to do with the expectations Americans have for their high-school children.

"No other country in the world comes close to the college-bound rate of the United States," Conley says. In England, where he spent an undergraduate year at the University of Exeter, he found that "the great international sorting systems" of Europe funnel students away from the university-bound track starting in what we'd consider junior high.

"Kids just need the break. Stressed-out kids who are booked solid with homework and sports, they've been academic, academic, academic. The more we focus on high-stakes tests, the more (students) realize that there's more to education than this."
-Brad MacGowan, Director of Career and College Counseling at Newton North High School (Newton, Mass.)

"In my naïveté, I assumed that everyone who went to high school [in the U.K.] had an equal shot at going to college. I was wrong," Conley says. "In America, everybody's on this forced march to college. But nobody's ever asked the operative question: Do you want to go to college?"

Especially for students applying to highly selective schools, academic expectations have never been higher, observers say.

"The pressure is almost unrelenting for many families," Harvard's Fitzsimmons observes. His New York Times article was even more forceful: "Professionals in their thirties and forties - physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others--sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp."

''Kids just need the break,'' MacCowan says. "Stressed-out kids who are booked solid with homework and sports, they've been academic, academic, academic. The more we focus on high-stakes tests, the more [students] realize that there's more to education than this."

And parents may unwittingly be adding to the pressure.

"We Baby Boomer parents no longer raise our children, we program them," Sexton says.  Varsity volleyball, youth symphony strings groups." By comparison, he says, a gap year seems "like nirvana."

But unlike the young Baby Boomers themselves, who made it a motto to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," high-school students today are more focused and purposeful about the extra time they're being vouchsafed than were earlier generations.

"The gap year is a well-studied plan, not a reactionary one," Sexton says. "We're not seeing the Holden Caulfields here"--J.D. Salinger's hero who, for many is seen as the perfect fictional example of someone who really needed a year off. "These 'Millennials,' as we've been calling them, are dutiful and ambitious, the 'Organization Kid,' as a recent Atlantic cover story put it. None of that tilting at windmills stuff." He pauses, a little wistfully. "I kind of miss that."

Along with that hardheadedness, however, is a strong altruistic streak.

"Obviously, there's a much greater level of volunteerism and community service in high schools today," Case Western's Conley says. And organizations like Habitat for Humanity and AmerCorps have risen to the challenge to provide structured places for students to put their talents to use.


But even clearing brush in a forest, or working with inner-city children, requires a certain amount of parental subsidy, high school counselor MacCowan points out. "There's still some cost involved to the family and the kids," he says. "These are not low socioeconomic kids who can go and do this thing." For some families, he says putting off entering the workforce for the four years of college is already a financial strain. "Foregoing income for the fifth year, the gap year, might he too much."

"There is a degree of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' here," Conley says. "I don't want to come across as saying that the 'haves' are doing frivolous things [with their time off], because they aren't. But it [the gap year] doesn't have a compelling impact on yield at most places because it's not universal. It's a prerequisite to have the wherewithal to fund such a year.

Furthermore, some worry that the service-oriented programs might have the unintended effect of alienating the very future workforce they're meant to attract.

"I could write a book about how much I hate Teach for America," says Deborah Appleman, referring to the  12-year-old program that places young people, usually college graduates, as teachers in low-income schools. As a professor of education at Carleton College (Northfield, Minn), Appleman has been a mentor to teachers-to-he for nearly two decades.

"These organizations are really well-intentioned, but you're putting young people with no training or experience into schools that would challenge even the most experienced teachers," Appleman says. "Any organization that turns altruistic amateurs into professionals is flirting with danger." America's inner cities and poverty-stricken classrooms, she says, are not a tourist destination.


But, wherever the student spends that extra year, it's far easier to temporarily get off the train to college than it was a generation ago, or even 10 years ago. Where their fathers and mothers might have simply packed a backpack and headed for Europe, today's students have more organized pursuits than ever from which to choose. And, faced with buoyant yields, colleges are more willing to grant deferments.

And taking a year off is no longer a sign of a troubled student. Increasingly, observers say, it's the together, organized students who are attracted to the notion and follow through with it.

"Students [today] are more confident, and they are sort of fearless," says Rothschild, who herself is only a couple of years out of college (she went to the University of Toledo in Ohio). "They have better relations with their families. That's a huge factor in being able to have a gap year.

"Holden Caulfield types-there are a lot of them out there, and unfortunately most of them go to college," Gilpin says. It's not the aimless, uncertain students who come to him, he says, but the ones who've thought through what they want to do and who are willing to take some risks. As Lewis & Clark's Sexton says: "You need some self-sufficiency and some chutzpah to pull this off."

"At least 30 percent of the students I work with are at the top academically-excellent students who know where they're going [to college]," gap-year advisor Marsha Ray says. The other 70 percent may he less directed, but they can still rind a program that fits their needs.

"There's a spectrum of programs, an array, just as there's an array of students who plug into them. That's what's nice," Ray says. And a good program offers students a microcosm of what they can expect from their peers on a college campus, with a wide range of talents, interests and backgrounds. "It gives them a sense of the real world, in a controlled way," she says.

Henry Ladd says there were a lot of reasons why taking a break between high school and college sounded good. "I'd been very busy at the end of high school, and there were a lot of family changes-my parents were actually just getting divorced. It was a really high-pressured academic year. I wanted to step back and get perspective, not rush [into college]."

Prep school is about the only thing he had in common with Holden Caulfield, he says. "I wasn't disenfranchised with school; it wasn't a struggle for me, academically. I would have coped with coming to college. But I talked with a few of my friends who had taken years off, and it just seemed kind of a good thing.

In fact, a large reason for the popularity of the gap year may be the reports the gappers themselves bring home.

"They come back transformed," Harvard's Fitzsimmons says. "People talk about life-altering experiences; the word 'epiphany' is used. It's rare to find anyone who speaks of the time off in any but glowing terms."

A Gaggle Of Gap – Year Opportunities

by Rebecca Ganzel

Students who choose to take a year off have dizzying array of programs from which to choose, Marsha Ray, who founded Student Extended Experiences Counseling (SEEC) in Deerfield, Ill., a gap-year consulting service, in 1997.  Most want to learn a new language or immerse themselves in a foreign culture.   But many seek to pursue particular interests – to work with horses, or to deep-sea dive, or to climb mountains.  "There's a lot of interest in environmental and ecological issues," she says.  Others look to hone a practical—or not-so-practical—job skill with an internship, like the student who asked Ray to set him up to work with a glassblower.  (She did it.)

For his part, Brad MacGowan has seen a surge of student interest in gap-year programs during his 12 years as a counselor at the 2,200-student Newton North High School in Newton, Mass.  He responded by developing a list of web resources of the most popular programs to hand out to inquisitive juniors and seniors.  He shared the list with us; we checked out his sites and added one more (Young Judea's Year Course in Israel).

Before you commit yourself, or an eager student, to one of these programs, though, bear in mind that there's no substitute for experience.   Parents who can afford a gap-year counselor like Ray, or Bob Gilpin, of Time-Out Associates, are likely to find it money well spent.

"Parents say, 'I need to know a lot more about this before I send my student to Southeast Asia.'"  Ray says, "I supply credibility, evaluations and recommendations from past participants."

Sites For General Information

Program run by Youth Service America that matches web visitors with service and volunteer opportunities.

An ad for the book of the same title by Colin Hall and Ron Lieber (Noonday Press, 1996, $12), with advice and links.

Free advice and information on overseas programs, including links to webzines and chat rooms.

Service-Oriented Programs

Network of 21,000 national service programs in education, public health and the environment; started in 1973.

AmeriCorps program for college-age students , based in Washington D.C.

The Institute for International Cooperation and Development: trains volunteers in development aid and them to Africa and Central and South America.

A federation of three programs, including AmeriCorps, with 2 million volunteers a year.

Traces its roots back 70 years to Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps; emphasizes environmental work, with 108 programs in 32 states.

Short- and long-term student internships available for cross-cultural adventures (emphasizing learning and community service) in Costa Rica, Tanzania and Thailand.

Habitat for Humanity, Founded in 1976: a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian organization that builds houses with and for needy people.

Tuition Based Programs

The National Outdoor Leadership School Founded in 1965 by an Outward Bound veteran, with wilderness-education courses from 10 days to 10 weeks long.

The granddaddy of wilderness adventure, founded in 1941 to develop endurance and confidence in World War II sailors; now with five schools and two urban centers in the U.S.

Undergraduate and graduate programs under the aegis of the 101-year-old-bird-conservation society.

Small-group expeditions to nine Asian countries; includes homestays and language training.

Founded in 1969; combines Outward Bound courses with internships in or near Worcester, Mass; college credit available through Clark University.

The Year Course in Israel offers college credit for living, studying and volunteering in sites throughout Israel.

GlobalQuest: small-group, semester-long programs in Thailand, with plans to add other countries in the near future.

Semester-long, for credit voyages on sailboats in the Caribbean.

by Rebecca Ganzel, The Lawlor Review

updated: 13 years ago