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Why more teens like Malia Obama are taking a gap year

President Barack Obama’s eldest daughter Malia announced plans to take a gap year before she attends Harvard in 2017, an idea that is taking hold among more and more students. In 2015, 30-40,000 students took a year off after graduating high school, a 20 percent jump. William Brangham talks to Joe O’Shea of Florida State University for more on the broader trend of deferring college.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As you have likely heard by now, Malia Obama has decided to take a so-called gap year before she attends Harvard University in 2017.

    It's an idea that's taking hold among more students, often at elite schools, but not only those.

    William Brangham looks at the broader trend.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It's estimated that, last year in the U.S., 30,000 to 40,000 students tried out a gap year. And that's a 20 percent jump from the previous year.

    So, what are they, why the growing interest?

    To help fill in the picture, I'm joined from Boston by Joe O'Shea. He's the author of "Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs." He also directs the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University.

    So, Joe, welcome.

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA, Florida State University:

    Thank you.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I think a lot of our viewers have this stereotype that a gap year is for rich kids to put on a backpack and travel around Europe and find themselves. I know that's not totally true, so, tell us, what is a gap year?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Sure.

    There are so many misconceptions about what a gap year is, and some people think it's just waiting around in your home community, maybe sitting on your parents' couch, taking a year off from school.

    But we think of gap year as something very different, a very powerful educational experience. It's a structured, deliberate and purposeful experience, in which students challenge themselves outside their comfort zones. Often it involves traveling or working or interning, sometimes overseas, sometimes domestically, but it's designed as an experience that accelerates their personal growth and prepares them for college.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, could you give me some examples of actual gap year activities that kids are doing now?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Sure.

    So, City Year, for instance, one in the U.S. in which students — or young people work in inner-city schools, is a powerful one and popular one. Many students go overseas. An organization Global Citizen Year, for instance, or Omprakash work with local community-based organizations in developing communities around the world.

    And students will intern there. Maybe they're doing something with young people or a community role or public health kind of work. But it really runs the spectrum.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Is there any research indicating what impact a gap year has on a student?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Sure.

    We have done some research both in the American Gap Association and in the academic world. And what's very clear to us is that, when students take these kind of structured, deliberate gap years, that their growth is really accelerated across a number of ways.

    They become better thinkers, better people and better citizens. And what is really interesting is that they perform better when they get to college. They are more likely to go to college, retain, and graduate and get higher GPAs.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, I realize that this can vary, but there has got to be a cost associated with this. Do we know how much — what does it cost to take a gap year?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Sure.

    It really ranges and depends on what you do. Gap years can cost as much as $30,000 a year, but they can also cost very little. There are some programs like Omprakash, for instance, which works directly with nonprofit organizations around the world. And some of them are free room and board for up to a year.

    And what is interesting is now we're seeing gap year organizations provide increasing levels of scholarship to students to support low-income schools — low-income students — sorry — and many universities, like my university, Florida State, subsidizing gap year experiences.

    We are, for the first year, dedicating $50,000 in scholarships to support low-income students in their gap year experiences.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, help me understand that. Why would a university, which I understand that they are increasingly interested in this — why would colleges and universities want their students to do this?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Well, we now know very clearly that this is a transformational educational experience.

    So, from our side, we know we're going to get really good and motivated and purposeful students when they come back to Florida State. And many universities are beginning to recognize this and see it as a powerful educational intervention.

    The students are going to retain better, graduate from the university. And we want to spearhead this and help signal to students and their families and other stakeholders in the education system that gap years are an important part of the educational ecosystem.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, I understand that there are scholarships available for low-income students, but isn't this still mostly the province of wealthier students?

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Unfortunately, gap years still are mostly done by students in the middle class and above.

    And that's a real big problem for America, especially since we know how beneficial gap year education can be for students to. And to get that to scale, we're going to need institutions and the government at the federal and state level to begin to recognize gap years and to federally and — subsidize those experiences for students.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, Joe O'Shea, Florida State University, thank you very much.

  • JOSEPH O’SHEA:

    Thank you.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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