Malia Obama Draws Attention to the Benefits of Taking a Gap Year Before College

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am
Malia Obama Draws Attention to the Benefits of Taking a Gap Year Before College
The White House announced Sunday, May 1, 2016, that Malia Obama will take a year off after high school and attend Harvard University in 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

A week ago most people didn’t know what a gap year was but thanks to President Obama’s eldest daughter Malia’s decision to take one before heading off to Harvard University, now the world does.

A gap year, or taking a year off typically between high school and college, has been around since the 1970s but hasn’t been used by many high school graduates in the U.S. But that’s changing over the last couple of years, as more families come to the realization that having their kids ‘find themselves’ in college is just too costly and doesn’t guarantee they will earn a degree. It also comes at a time when countless students go off to college only to drop out a year or two later because they weren’t prepared for the rigors of higher education. The White House’s announcement and endorsement of gap years are creating more awareness around this alternative rite of passage.

“Just in the past 24 hours the traffic at our website hit an all-time high of a 400% increase,” says Fred Kaelin, co-founder of USA Gap Year Fairs, which runs gap year events around the country each year to connect parents and students with gap year program providers. “Suddenly a gap year is being talked about. I imagine it (the web traffic) will keep growing.”

Malia Obama to attend Harvard after taking a gap year

On Sunday, the White House announced Malia will attend Harvard in 2017, after taking a gap year. Elite schools like Harvard and Princeton University have long encouraged gap years, pointing to research that shows taking a year off once a student is enrolled in school can reduce stress, burnout and other undesirable behaviors like binge drinking or drug use.

But while a gap year can be impactful, it’s long been reserved for rich kids who can afford the structured gap year programs, which can run anywhere from $8,000 to $40,000. Though, a gap year doesn’t have to cost anything if the student uses the time to work. For most students who pursue a gap year, it does have a cost, limiting its popularity until recently.

More financial assistance going for gap years

Recognizing that all students can benefit from a gap year, some colleges and universities are making gap years part of the curriculum and offering financial assistance for students in need. Take Florida State University for one example. In late December, FSU announced students who apply for the gap year option will automatically be considered for a scholarship of up to $5,000. Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a Global Gap Year fellowship that provides $7,500 to seven incoming first-year students to use toward a gap year abroad. And two years ago, Tufts University and its Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service announced a new bridge program dubbed Tufts 1+4 in which it provides a structured year of full-time national and international service before starting a four-year degree program at the university.

“It’s become increasingly clear that gap year experiences can be transformative for students, helping them become better thinkers and citizens,” says Joe O’Shea, director at the Center for Undergraduate Research & Academic Engagement at Florida State University. “We recognize that gap year education can be inaccessible to many low-income students, and we want all students to be able to take advantage of a gap year education, regardless of their family’s income.”

While FSU’s gap year scholarship is new, O’Shea says there’s a lot of interest, particularly since Obama’s announcement a few days ago. “This is likely the biggest thing to have ever happened to gap years in the U.S. It brings new levels of social recognition for gap years—and gives additional social permission to students to take one,” says O’Shea. “If Malia is taking a gap year, maybe I should too.”

Gap year can help with mental health

A gap year may seem like a way for well-off kids to kick back and spend their parents’ money for a year, but research has shown gap years make students better at learning, which, in turn, improves the outcomes for the universities they attend. “Students are a little more dedicated and committed to their academic progress,” says Sheila Akbar, director of education at Signet Education, the tutoring and test prep company. Offering a gap year component also helps schools keep a handle on enrollment. After all, they know every student that applies won’t attend, but if the potential student enrolls and takes a gap year, the school knows they will attend a year later, explains Akbar.

Another byproduct of the gap year is its potential positive impacts on mental health. In this era of ‘helicopter parenting’, kids don’t build up a thick skin or a sense of resiliency, explains Kaelin, which can lead to facing emotional problems such as stress, anxiety and depression when they set out on their own. “We are facing a mental health crisis in this country and in higher education,” says O’Shea. “Many of the qualities that gap years help develop, like resilience, grit, self-confidence, and purpose are protective factors that make it less likely for a student to develop a mental health issue during college.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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