President Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, isn’t the only
American student putting off her college education to take a gap year.
According to companies and organizations that promote the gap year experience,
it’s a travel phenomenon that is gaining in popularity stateside and
consequently introducing new opportunities for the industry.
“This is a movement on the rise,” said Ethan Knight, who
founded the nonprofit advocacy group the American Gap Association in 2012 in an
effort to create an accreditation process for gap-year providers. “It’s our
desire to see taking a gap year become a commonplace stage of a young person’s
education, much as it is in a number of other countries.”
Based on several standards, ranging from educational
value to safety precautions, the American Gap Association has accredited 12
different providers, and Knight said the number of applicants is growing.
His association defines a gap year as an experiential
semester or year typically taken between high school and college in order to
deepen practical, professional and personal awareness.
Knight cited three reasons why gap years, traditionally
more common in Europe and Australia, are becoming more popular in the U.S.:
burnout from the competitive pressure of getting into college, a desire for
students to learn more about themselves, and putting off the high cost of
college until students have a clearer understanding of their academic and
According to research by the American Gap Association, gap year program providers saw a 23% increase in enrollment in 2015 over 2014.
According to research conducted by the American Gap
Association, gap year program providers saw a 23% increase in enrollment in
2015 over 2014, and there has been a 294% increase in attendance at gap year
fairs around the country since 2010.
The result is that travel companies are tapping into this
market with increasing fervor and are seeing that business grow.
“We have seen an increased interest from parents and
students in gap year programs over the past few years,” said Chris Stakich, CEO
of Rustic Pathways, which provides community service, education and adventure
programs for students and has offered gap year programs for several years. “Not
only families are recognizing the power of a gap year. High school teachers,
college counselors, and universities themselves are supporting the idea. … The
time for reflection that a gap year offers enables students to return to school
more focused on their studies, interests and career goals.”
In March, the Huntsburg, Ohio-based Rustic Pathways
partnered with career exploration company Roadtrip Nation to create a new
product called Rustic Roadtrips that provides students with structured gap year
experiences focused on exploring their careers and the world.
The Rustic Roadtrips are three-month journeys that enable
students to explore a region of the world and career options at the same time
in fields such as business, politics, education, science and the arts in
destinations that include the United States, Australia, India and Southeast
Asia. The programs cost $21,995.
While a lot of gap year experiences aren’t cheap, Knight
notes that there are also a multitude of resources for gap year-related scholarships
as well as experiences such as AmeriCorps where students don’t have to pay and
may get paid for their service.
Elizabeth Cauchois, program adviser for voluntourism
company Projects Abroad, said that there are gap year projects available for
many different budgets and that Projects Abroad will work with students to find
a global volunteer project within their budget. Projects Abroad has also
noticed the uptick in interest in the gap year experience.
“Some of this can be attributed to the rebounding
economy,” Cauchois said. “But it can also be attributed to a cultural shift,
where it is more common to take time off to travel. The idea of going straight
from high school to college to a job for the next 30 or so years has
dramatically changed, and it has become much more commonplace to take some time
to decide what it is you want to do in life, and how you can make that a
Atle Skalleberg, managing director of
StudentUniverse.com, said the concept is clearly taking off in the U.S.
“The most impressive thing about the White House
announcement of Malia Obama’s plans,” Skalleberg said, “was that they even used
the term ‘gap year,’ showing that it is not only the concept, but the term,
that is gaining a foothold in the U.S. market.”