Gap Year Association: Trend Goes Beyond Malia Obama

The growing popularity of gap years, which received additional attention because of Malia Obama's decision to take one before she attends Harvard, highlights the reason why the American Gap Association exists. Here's how the group is working to expand interest in the practice.

When Malia Obama announced earlier this month that she will be taking a gap year before heading to Harvard, the president’s daughter highlighted the growth of a much larger trend.

Another sign of the trend’s increasing popularity with college-bound students is the existence of the American Gap Association, which does research on the practice of taking a year between high school and college as well as provides resources to and accredits gap-year programs that encourage travel and time for new experiences before diving into the rigors of college or the working world.

Founded in 2012, AGA also establishes and updates the standards that its accredited member organizations adhere to, educates people on the value of gap years, and provides information on financial resources that help students embark on this year of self-discovery.

In a recent interview with Travel Weekly, Ethan Knight, the founder and executive director of AGA, noted that the hardest part of taking a gap year is understanding what’s out there and what options are best for students.

“I had seen a lot of people say they were interested in a gap year, loved the concept, but they didn’t know what good gap year programs were,” Knight said.

That concern may be one of the reasons that gap-year programs are still looked at skeptically by many people in the United States. As The New York Times reports, gap years are far more popular in the U.K., where more than 200,000 students engage in this practice, than in the U.S., where 30,000 students partake in the trend.

One change that’s boosting the idea, according to Knight, is the fact that many schools are treating gap years less as a detriment to their bottom line and more as a benefit for students. Indeed, Knight says, schools like Washington, DC’s American University offer gap-year programs of their own.

“It used to be that we would always advise [students to] apply to school, get accepted, defer and don’t mention that you’re taking a gap year until you have that letter of acceptance in your hand,” Knight told Travel Weekly. “What we’re seeing now is that trend is shifting. Students are being encouraged to actually say during the application process that they are taking a gap year.”

But while the gap year is still relatively novel in the States, Malia Obama isn’t the first famous offspring of a world figure to take this path. As Center for Interim Programs President Holly Bull noted to Newsweek, a couple of princes, William and Harry, made the idea popular in Britain and the U.S.

“That was when the term gap year started to really appear in the United States,” she said, adding that she expected a similar bump from Malia Obama’s decision.

Malia Obama, right, with her father in Havana, Cuba earlier this year. It won't be the only traveling she'll be doing in the coming months. (Pete Souza/White House photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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