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A Break From Reality

Do incoming freshmen really need a year off before beginning the rigors of college? Please.

(Illustration / Jo Tyler)

Followers of the zeitgeist say the "gap year" is the hot, new fad in collegiate life. Instead of stepping right from high school senior to college freshman, kids are applying to college but then taking a year off . They're doing so with the increasingly active encouragement of high school guidance counselors, college admissions officers, and a slew of businesses hoping to make a buck. This new version of gap years is different from the one experienced by students in the 1960s (back then, it was called the "draft" and mostly offered opportunities for travel in Southeast Asia). Now the options available to gappers are almost endless: They can serve beer in Australia, volunteer for City Year, travel the Amazon, or intern for their local newspapers. It all sounds quite cool.

Long popular in Europe, gap years are being sold to Americans as a break from the daily educational grind, an opportunity for independence, a chance to do good, and a creative way of building one's resume. Some ponder what gap years say about this generation of kids: Are they extending adolescence (or perhaps embracing adulthood)? Is the stress of education too great (or is a gap year just a different kind of education)? Are they ignoring the real world (or perhaps learning ever more about it)? Is it a lark (or a newfound commitment to society)?

Financially strapped parents, of course, might wonder whether gap years are just an excuse for another 12 months on the family dole, a yearlong all-expenses-paid vacation.

Actually, the whole thing is overblown. True, at a few local universities, such as Harvard and Wellesley, deferrals have climbed, but still only a handful of students become gappers (22 out of 594 incoming freshmen at Wellesley this year, for example, and 30 to 60 out of a standard freshman enrollment of 1,675 at Harvard).

At most schools, however, not only are the numbers small, but they're unchanging. "We are aware of the emergence of this as a possible trend, but as for hard data, that is more of a challenge," Martin McGovern, director of communications for Stonehill College, says in an e-mail. It's "not an issue," according to an Emerson spokesman, it's in the "single digits" at Bentley, and it's "less than 1 percent," says an official at Northeastern. Administrators from Babson, Tufts, Emmanuel, Boston University, and Simmons all concur. "There's a lot more talk about taking time out" than actually occurs, says Harvard's dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons. "I'm surprised more students don't consider doing it," adds Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admission at Wellesley.

It's just as well. The ubiquity of gap years in Europe notwithstanding, their failure to catch on here shouldn't be a surprise. American culture is more driven and career-focused than is Europe's (remember, this is the continent that includes France, where students rioted when the government tried to pass a law denying them instant job security). Moreover, cut through the rhetoric, and it appears that the theory underlying gap years is that today's high schoolers are too immature, too dependent, and too unready for the rigors of higher education. It's reminiscent of the complaint every older generation seems to have about the young, a variant of the rant that begins "When I was your age . . ." I don't buy it. Doubtless, some could benefit from the leavening that a year off provides. Most, I suspect, don't need it.

Jaime Robitaille, acting co-director of admissions at Babson, says in an e-mail that her students are "focused and organized and ready to begin." BU spokesman Colin Riley adds, "The vast majority that we accept are well prepared to continue their academic progress." Edward Klotzbier, vice president of student affairs for Northeastern, says, "Our kids have already found themselves."

In other words, if you really do need a gap year, maybe you shouldn't be applying to college at all.

Tom Keane is a partner in a private equity firm and a former Boston city councilor. E-mail him at

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