A Cure for the College-Bound Blues

The New York Times
Sunday, March 9, 2008

By Alex Williams

By the time she graduated from high school, Sabrina Skau needed a break. She was 18. She was exhausted.

While high school passes with the plodding pace of a marathon for some students, Ms. Skau, who graduated from David Douglas High School in Portland, Ore., last June, approached it more like a 26-mile sprint. Setting her sights on admission to college, she took three college-level Latin courses at Portland State University the summer after eighth grade. Through her senior year, she barely stopped for breath, as hours of oboe practice and band competitions crowded into hours of after-school volunteer work.

By the end, she barely stumbled over the finish line.

“I had always been so excited to go to college, but over senior year I simply started to get burned out,” she said in an e-mail message. “By the summertime it was evident that I was not looking forward to going back to school. That was something that frightened both my parents and me.”

So Ms. Skau took a step that would have seemed shocking a year before: she said no to college – at least for a year.

Ms. Skau, who is now teaching English in Argentina, is among a growing number of high-achieving students who are contemplating a year off before college – known as a gap year – as a release from mounting pressures to gain admittance to top colleges.

The transition from high school to college is not what it used to be. Freshmen show up on campus with stress from the admissions chase and parents hovering a text-message away. For them, the gap year is a way to reclaim what has been lost.

Mindful of those strains, schools are promoting gap years more aggressively. Last month, Princeton unveiled plans to send at least a 10th of its incoming students abroad for a year of social service before starting at the university. High schools now hold gap-year fairs to teach students about the option, and companies and consultants that place students in gap-year programs (guitar-building in England or caring for injured sled dogs in Canada) are proliferating.

While the number of students who start college at least one year after graduation remains below 2 percent, according to the annual American Freshman survey, conducted by a graduate division of the University of California, Los Angeles, educators say that interest in gap years has risen in the last five years.

“I see more gap-year programs reaching out to us,” said Erin K. Johnston, a college guidance counselor at the National Cathedral School in Washington. “I see kids coming up with the idea on their own.”

More college consultants are recommending gap years as well, said Steven Roy Goodman, a consultant in Washington, who said he counsels at least 20 percent of his clients to take one, whereas he hardly did a decade ago.

Growing interest in gap years, he said, may be the result of the rising cost of higher education. Parents are less willing to subsidize aimlessness and uncertainty over five or six years.

“The bottom line is that almost 50 percent of students who begin a four-year college don’t finish within five years, and only 54 percent will graduate, even in six years,” Mr. Goodman said. “If that’s the current rate, it’s important to make sure you end up at a school where one, you’re happy, and two, you’re engaged and you want to learn.”

This attitude has benefited companies that design gap-year programs abroad, which have been multiplying and expanding.

Chris Yager, the founder and director of Where There Be Dragons, a company in Boulder, Colo., that runs gap-year programs, said that his revenue had nearly doubled in the last year, to almost $1 million a year, as the number of students in its programs spiked to 91 from 46.

For some students, the pressure is so great to get into college – any college – that they need time to recover once they finally get the news. When Landon C. White, 18, graduated from high school in Denver last spring and received his acceptance package from Bard College, he decided he needed time to “create a person rather than a college student.” Mr. White, who is studying in France through a company called Southern France Youth Institute, based in Sandpoint, Idaho, said his gap year had provided a necessary psychological pause. “I’m recuperating,” he said. “Now I get to be myself.”

And the perils are genuine. Dr. Paul Grayson, a clinical psychologist at New York University, said that the number of students seeking counseling on his campus had increased 25 percent over the last two years. A portion of that, he said, seems to stem from the admissions chase, which has become “like an arms race that is out of control.” “There are some people who need to get away from that kind of rat race.”

More than an alternative to burnout, a rugged gap year spent working on a sustainable farm in Costa Rica can provide a means to building self-confidence in students who might otherwise “get munched up by academic process,” said Holly Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs, a company in Princeton, N.J., that organizes gap-year programs abroad.

It’s a peril that she said applies particularly to boys – about 60 percent of her clientele. “I hate to make generalizations, but there are definitely a number of young men who could use an extra year to mature,” Ms. Bull said.

The gap year may be symptomatic of young people who are dealing with increasing uncertainties in their careers and their lives, said William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, who is conducting a nationwide survey on how students find purpose.

“I’m seeing a lot of postponements of a lot of things,” Dr. Damon said. “Kids are pausing a bit before moving forward and starting college. When they leave college, they are doing other postponements. They’re waiting to make commitments to jobs, deferring marriage.”

“It’s a new millennium phenomenon,” he added.

The rising interest in gap years also reflects changing attitudes toward the rite of passage that going away to college represented, educators said. Now that high school pressures can rival those of college, some students see the transition as little more than another go-around on the “treadmill,” as Lucy McKinstry, who took a year off between Phillips Exeter and Duke University in 2005 and 2006, put it.

“Compared to a generation ago, the gap between high school experience and the college experience has shrunk,” said Christoph Guttentag, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke. “Students are better prepared academically, savvier socially, and I think there’s less distancing from parents than their used to be.”

Sometimes, a gap year abroad can help break ties with proactive parents, who micromanage their children’s collegiate aspirations and keep close tabs on their children by cellphone and Facebook, said Tom Parker, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College.

Some of that parental smothering “is lovely,” Mr. Parker said. “But it doesn’t feel like the break that it once was.”

For some students, a gap year can be a valuable breather, even without a 7,000-mile trip.

Emily Hadden, 19, from Tenafly, N.J., deferred her enrollment at Duke in spring 2006 and spent the next year living a dozen or so miles from her family’s home in a studio apartment in Manhattan, where she studied ballet. While her friends “were all confused why I wasn’t going to college right away,” she enjoyed simply exhaling – reading books she had put off, mulling careers, perhaps journalism, and learning independence.

“If anything,” she added from the safety of Duke housing, where she was surrounded by other high-achieving 19-year-olds, college “felt like a step backward.”

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