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If your high school student turned to you and said, "I'd like to put off going to college and take a gap year instead," how would you react?
Gap years have become popular enough that a Portland-based organization, the American Gap Association, has sprung up to advise parents and students as well as to set standards and push for accreditation.
Ethan Knight, the association's executive director, said by email that about 8,000 U.S. students take what the association defines as a gap year, with roughly 10 percent from the Pacific Northwest.
He adds that despite a lack of regulation until now, many programs seem to have well thought-out risk management plans "and a strong educational ethos rooted in experiential education."
Also locally, the for-profit Carpe Diem International Education works with Portland State University to support gap year students.
Drew Edwards, Carpe Diem's executive director, says any student who's been accepted into college and has deferred enrollment can go abroad with Carpe Diem. Students go in groups of up to 12, with two adult mentors. Each participant receives a syllabus, coursework and a PSU transcript.
Ron Witczak, executive director of Portland State's Office of International Affairs, says the university is providing gap year transcripts for more than 150 students a year nationwide. "It is an area we are seeing that is growing significantly," he says.
Edwards says gap year students return "with a much higher degree of investment in their lives." And parents notice: "They see their child presenting differently, more mature, more focused, more engaged."
"One of the biggest differences for students who take a gap year is that they return to school because they want to, not simply because they are supposed to," Edwards says.
Still, a gap year is not without challenge. It requires students to transition from having a script to having to write one, says Lisa Meyer, dean for enrollment and communications at Lewis & Clark College.
Here's gap year advice for parents from Knight, Witczak, Edwards and Meyer.
"Take a deep breath and relax." That's from Edwards, who's talked with his share of parents fretting that a child will go to Africa and never come back, or that a gap year will result in a child losing educational ground.
Edwards says students who take gap years are more likely to finish college in four years and to have higher grade-point averages than students who don't.
Insist on applying to college first. Some students don't think it's necessary to apply to college right away if they take a year off. Meyer says that can cost them the advantage of working with their school counselor and having teachers easily available for recommendations.
Meyer recommends that high school seniors apply to college, send in their deposit and then defer enrollment. Then they don't have to worry about applying to college during their gap year.
Knight says applying to college first also increases the odds that students will continue their education. Ninety percent of gap year students are in college within a year of their gap year, he says.
Have your child create a plan. "Perhaps the most important element of a gap year is that the student take the lead," says Knight, quoting Holly Bull, president of The Center for Interim Programs LLC in Princeton, N.J.
Knight says a gap year should be intentional and about "fit." "Exploring passions at a level that is manageable for each student is critical," he says.
Meyer agrees: "I don't necessarily recommend a gap year for a student who just says, 'I don't know what I want to do.'" A gap year, she says, is "most beneficial to students who have a strong desire to do something and they see it through."
Do your due diligence. Edwards says the number of gap year programs can be overwhelming. "Five years ago there were 10 organizations ... now there's like 60."
If your student is interested in a particular organization, ask to talk with past participants and parents; beware if you can't. "Anybody can set up a webpage and say, 'We have a gap program,'" Witczak says.
Also beware of a program that appears to be growing rapidly, he says. "The danger is that these types of programs will grow too quickly and not have any best practices behind them."
Some gap year programs outsource elements such as transportation, Knight says. The American Gap Association is addressing that issue in its accreditation process.
If you're not sure about an organization your student is considering, run its name by someone who's experienced with gap year programs, like Witczak. "Many of us who've been in the business for a number of years know these programs and can offer an opinion on whether they're good or not," he says.
Understand what your child is getting into. Carpe Diem, for instance, has a service learning program, which Witczak says is very different from a traditional study abroad program.
When it comes to service learning, parents should warn children, "Your mettle is going to be tested," Edwards says. If a student wants to work in international development, for instance, a gap year program can show her what that really looks like on the ground in Tanzania.
Check on support systems. Don't just make sure your student will have room and board, Witczak says, but also check on whether and how an organization vets housing situations.
Know what medical services are available. Knight says some programs take students hours away from "first world definitive medical care" -- another issue his association is addressing. All students going abroad need health insurance, Witczak says.
Find out whom you'll be entrusting your child to. Knight says some organizations send students on less supervised programs that might have a local contact as their chief liaison rather than a staffer from the organization. Carpe Diem posts biographies and photos of its staff on its website, allowing parents to get an idea of the type of person who mentors its trips, says Edwards.
Do a credit check. If your student wants college credit for gap year studies, check with the counseling and study abroad offices at the college he or she will attend. Most schools will accept gap year credits, Edwards says.
But, Edwards adds, it's his experience that only about 40 percent of gap year students transfer their credits. The rest do gap years purely for the experience.
Check enrollment expectations. Students who participate in the Carpe Diem-PSU partnership are not required to enroll at Portland State, Witczak says. But that might not be the case at other colleges.
Meyer says it's crucial to understand how colleges define gap years. Taking one community college class shouldn't affect gap year status, but "it is not a gap year to go to a different college for a year and study something you want and then come back," she says. "Those students would have to apply as a transfer student."
Confirm the schedule. Not all programs are a full school year; Carpe Diem has a lot of participants who go abroad for three months. Also, some gap years don't start until fall; other students start immediately after graduating from high school.
The different options can help alleviate cost as well as parental concerns about a student's readiness for a year overseas, Witczak says.
Talk about finances. Meyer said a student wanting a gap year should be asked, "How will you fund it?"
Edwards says the expense of a gap year is the biggest obstacle for most families -- it's possible to spend the same amount as if the student went to college. But there are some affordable programs, he says.
And if a student uses an accredited program, "you have the benefit of being able to use and access financial aid from the government."
Meyer warns that deferring enrollment can mean having to resubmit a financial aid application. A student who's eligible for a merit-based award will probably still be eligible a year later. But need-based aid is always based on the previous year's income and assets, so families will need to re-apply. It's best to check with the financial aid office of the college your student plans to attend.
More food for thought:
"Consider a gap year," by independent college counselor Lee Bierer
"3 great reasons to take a gap year and 3 bad reasons to take a gap year"