Malia Obama's gap year is a smart choice — and a luxury that many American students can't afford

The eldest Obama daughter will defer her admission to Harvard for a year, unlike many who must race through college

Published May 2, 2016 3:26PM (EDT)

Malia Obama   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Malia Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Following the jokes, fashion and "nerd prom" activities of the White House Correspondents Dinner this weekend, the Obama family announced that oldest daughter Malia will be attending Harvard University for college. The announcement is the first look at what the future will look like for the Obamas after an eight-year presidency.

How will the children adjust to life outside the White House that served as their home through such formative years of adolescent development? Fortunately Malia has a year to find out. Included in the announcement of her decision to attend Harvard, the public learned she'll also be taking a year off in between high school and college, otherwise known as a "gap year." Harvard University, among other elite higher education institutions, encourages students to take a gap year for reasons that include the opportunity to travel and cultivate other life experiences such as internships or volunteering. But most students in the United States aren't so lucky.

Many American students begin college the fall after graduating high school on a trajectory to earn a degree in four years or less in order to begin working. Simply put, most students cannot afford a gap year for both financial and pragmatic reasons.

What's a recent high school graduate to do with a whole year off if their parents can't afford to send them abroad? It's likely they'd continue to live at home while working a retail job to pass time and earn the cash to support a life of newfound leisure and freedom. This is a perfectly cromulent thing to do if a student decides to, but could set them back in terms of the experiences their peers are pursuing either at college or while on a more enriching gap year.

For students like Malia and others like her, their circumstances allow them the time to find themselves through experiences outside of the classroom most others can't. This isn't to say taking a gap year is wrong. I took a gap year between college and graduate school, and another before starting a doctoral program. The need to decompress between degrees is necessary to avoid burn out following years at an institution devoted to coursework, a thesis, and myriad other life-complicating factors. For Malia, taking a gap year means taking time to reconnect with her family and herself outside of life in the White House -- a year to breathe and adjust to life as a somewhat regular American citizen.

If only the education system provided the same luxury to all students. Most scholarships do not come with an option to defer for any length of time, so students on scholarship or other financial assistance must either accept and push through it or risk not having the funding to attend college the following year. It can also be an opaque administrative hurdle to cross—not every university accepts deferment, or approaches it in the same way—which creates yet another burden on first-generation college-bound students, for whom navigating higher-ed bureaucracy already comes with a learning curve.

When I worked as a high school tutor, I quickly learned that students from less-privileged homes often struggled in the classroom for reasons other than not comprehending the assignments. Most worked after-school jobs, which often kept them from being able to show up for tutoring, in addition to exhausting them. The last thing a 17-year-old is going to want to do is create a chart explaining the Kreb Cycle or write an essay on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" after an eight-hour school day and then a shift at a part-time job. Most of the students I worked with weren't working to pay for cool clothes or to finance prom (though to be fair, some did), but rather to help support their families. Education was important insofar as avoiding punishment for truancy, but I faced the very stark reality that some students—all younger than I was at the time—had been working much harder and much longer than I ever had in order to put food on the table. I quickly checked my privilege and empathized with students who weren't able to enjoy the indulgences I had considered basic rights of being a teenager up until that point.

With the economy still re-stabilizing, many students are opting to participate in programs that allow them to take college courses concurrent with their high school coursework in order to graduate high school with an associate degree as well. This option is desirable for students looking to find a higher-earning job while in college, to graduate early (with less debt), or to prepare the student for the workforce immediately upon graduating high school. Most of these students come from families struggling to make ends meet, and taking a gap year might mean sinking the family into financial ruin.

Gap years are an enriching opportunity for students whose families can afford it, and can result in a student feeling inspired, invigorated and ready to challenge themselves that much more once they opt to return to their studies. Unfortunately, a gap year seems like an unfathomable vacation for many students who can't take the time off to gain the experiences that might make their resume standout on future job, school and fellowship applications. This process serves to increase the disparity in educational opportunities for students, widening the gap between those who can and can't afford to learn outside the classroom and return to school with their newfound real-world knowledge. If only we had a bridge.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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