Malia Obama to take a 'gap year' before college. Should everyone?

Malia Obama, the eldest Obama daughter, is taking a year off between high school and Harvard, the White House said Sunday. This type of hiatus, assuming the time is well spent, is endorsed by some colleges.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Barack Obama, right, with his daughter Malia Obama, waves as they arrive at the White House in Washington, Jan. 4, 2015, from a family vacation in Hawaii.

After months of speculation about which college Malia Obama will attend after graduating the elite Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. this year, the White House announced Sunday that the Obama family had picked Harvard University.

The 17-year-old Malia won’t embark on her college career until fall 2017, though, electing to take a “gap year” between the two phases of her life.

Did the eldest of the Obama daughters decide to take a hiatus from school to expand her horizons by traveling the world, or to do humanitarian work, or maybe to get some real-world film-making experience under her belt? The White House didn’t say, but it's also possible that, more than anything else, the decision to delay college has to do with waiting out her father’s presidency to avoid the attention she would attract as a freshman.

Whatever she decides to do with her year off, Malia’s decision brings attention to a year of growth and development between high school and college that some educators and schools strongly endorse, especially since today’s students face more severe pressure to do well – and to participate in many more extracurricular activities – in high school than did previous generations.

“We shouldn’t rush this transition,” Jeffrey J. Selingo, a professor at the University of Arizona and a former top editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, told The New York Times.

In his new book, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow,” Prof. Selingo writes that a gap year often helps students process why they’re going to college and what they want to get out out of the experience.

“We are rushing too many kids off to college who aren’t ready or don’t know why they’re there,” he told the Times.

According to the Times:

Students who take time off tend to do better academically and are more likely to be satisfied with their choices after graduation, and we’ve written about how students who take time off may be able to make better choices about things like alcohol and sex and have a better understanding of what they want from college.

Even colleges are endorsing the hiatus. Harvard is among those, encouraging students accepted to the university to defer enrollment to travel, work on a special project, or do something else that’s meaningful.  

“Regardless of why they took the year off or what they did, students are effusive in their praise,” Harvard says on its admissions site. “Many speak of their year away as a ‘life-altering’ experience or a ‘turning point,’ and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives.”

Princeton University has a Bridge Year Program, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a Global Gap Year Fellowship Program, as The Washington Post points out.

There is little doubt that the president’s daughter will do something exceptional with her gap year. And when she’s ready to do school again, Malia will follow in the footsteps of her parents, both of whom attended Harvard Law School, and many other presidential children who studied at Harvard.

The university accepted 5.2 percent of applicants this year, which marked the most competitive admissions cycle in the school’s nearly four-century history, according to the Times.

Malia considered six of the eight Ivy League schools: Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, reports the Los Angeles Times. She also visited New York University, Tufts, Barnard College, and Wesleyan University.

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