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Posted on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

More Ann Arbor area graduates take 'gap year' off after high school for work, travel, volunteering

By Danielle Arndt

For students, taking a year off between high school graduation and the first semester of college once was stigmatized as unambitious.

But today, taking a "gap year" has transcended that stereotype and often is seen as the trendy thing to do — sometimes, with a $30,000 price tag.


Ephy Love prepares a falafel dish at a Yemeni restaurant in Israel. Love, a soon-to-be senior at the University of Michigan, took a gap year in Israel after graduating from Dexter High School in 2009.

Courtesy photo

John Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School and coordinator for all counselors at Ann Arbor Public Schools, said he has seen the number of students interested in taking time off increase significantly in recent years. Rather than sitting at home on the couch, however, they are busy finding opportunities for work, travel, volunteering or service projects, Boshoven said.

The interest in a gap year led Community High to offer a semester-long course titled “Preparing for the Gap Year” this past fall. The course instructor, Will Purves of Raven Education Works in Ann Arbor, said Community plans to expand the program and offer two classes in the future.

“In a nutshell, the class looks at a couple of different things,” Purves said. “It explores what do you value — if you’re thinking about taking a year off before college and even if you’re thinking about going to college … it helps kids think a little more deeply about who they are, their futures and the directions they want to go with their lives.”

Purves said 20 to 30 years ago, the opportunity and drive to attend college were less common. And for those who did aspire to achieve after high school, college was considered the only option, he said.

But today, with the rising cost of higher education, students and their parents are beginning to challenge that concept.

“Or (they may think) before I go off and take on $20,000 to $30,000 to $40,000 worth of debt, I at least want to be more sure of what I want to do or go into,” he said.

Purves added too many young adults go to college because that is considered “the next step” — not because they actually view college as part of their direction in life.

Organizations are finding ways to capitalize on students’ insecurities, Boshoven said. There are now gap year fairs that take place throughout the country that showcase travel or service programs graduating seniors can enroll in.

“We looked into having one come to Ann Arbor,” he said. “But there was not one program (among the fair) that cost less than $20,000 … and not everyone can afford that.”

Carpe Diem Education, an organization that offers popular service programs in developing countries, charges $8,900 to $11,900, depending on the location, plus airfare, for a semester abroad. Another popular gap year organization, LeapNow, which offers language and cultural immersion experiences and career and job-readiness programs in professions such as midwifery, can cost up to $30,000.

But not all gap years, if well planned out, have to be expensive or run through a program, Purves said.

“It’s about figuring out what the student and his parents are comfortable with,” he said.

The course at Community High teaches students how and where to look for opportunities, how to manage the logistics of travel or the work experience and the basics of financial planning and how to live on a budget.

Purves works with students across Washtenaw County, not just at Community High, through his educational counseling and consulting business.

Answering the call

Leon Sunstein, a 2012 graduate of Pioneer High School, will be traveling to New Zealand in September in lieu of attending his first semester at the University of Michigan.

Sunstein will spend 77 days in the steep and rugged countryside backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking and living with members of the native Maori tribe.

“I’m happiest when I’m outdoors and traveling,” he said.

Sunstein deferred his enrollment to U-M and signed up to spend the first half of his gap year with the National Outdoor Leadership School, a wilderness education program. The trip will cost about $17,000, compared to $6,220 for one semester of tuition and fees at U-M for a Michigan resident.

Following his time in New Zealand, Sunstein, a former wrestler at Pioneer, will spend a couple of months in Colorado. His plans are to live with a few roommates and find a night job that will allow him to ski during the day. After Colorado, he'll travel to Europe to meet up with fellow Pioneer, Elizabeth Morgan, who also is doing a gap year, to explore Italy.

Despite these plans, Sunstein hopes his gap year will shape itself.

“It was important to me that — aside from New Zealand — the rest of the year is really flexible,” he said. “I can go to Colorado or I can do something else instead... That’s really my hope that I will meet someone in New Zealand who is taking a gap year, too, and can go off and travel with them for a bit.

“I'm really hoping the trips will take a nature of their own and that from that, I will be able to find a passion I’d be interested in studying.”

Sunstein said he isn't sure what he would like to do for the rest of his life and is optimistic that his year off will help him determine a course to pursue. He also believes cultural enrichment is important and is excited to learn various “life skills.”

“For a huge portion of the year, I am going to have to support myself," he said. "...I think it’ll teach me the value of money and how to get through difficult things on my own.”

A break to motivate?

A 2010 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that low-performing European and Australian seniors are more likely to take a gap year than their peers, according to a report in Education Week. The report also highlights findings of the study that show these students are more motivated to obtain their college degrees after taking time off for travel, service learning, working or volunteering.

However, a recent study of gap-year students in the United States, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, showed that among U.S. graduating seniors in 2003, 44 percent of students who went straight to college after high school had earned their bachelor’s degree within six years. But of those who delayed college for a year, only 15 percent had their bachelor’s degree in six years.

Sunstein said when he first began exploring the idea of a gap year, his parents — especially his mom — were not in favor of the idea.

“I think she thought I was trying to get out of going to college,” he said, which is not the case. “It took a bit of convincing, but they came around and now are 100 percent on board.”


Pioneer High School senior Leon Sunstein wrestles this past season. Sunstein is taking a gap year to travel and is deferring his enrollment to the University of Michigan until 2013-14. file photo

The Sunsteins also agreed to help their son with about half the costs for his travels, Leon Sunstein said.

His intentions actually are to re-apply to other colleges during his year off. Leon Sunstein said while he was accepted to U-M and would go there, he was turned down at his top choice, Marist College in New York, and hopes his gap year experience will increase his chances of getting in.

Dexter High School 2009 graduate Ephraim “Ephy” Love also deferred his enrollment to U-M and took a gap year with the intent to re-apply to Columbia University or Dartmouth College. But after spending a year in Israel studying, working with Sudanese refugees and helping to manage a Yemeni cuisine restaurant via a Young Judaea Year Course program, he changed his mind.

Prior to his Israel trip, Love wanted to study oceanography. Then, he experienced an Israel that differed slightly from the glorified country of his childhood.

He said growing up in a Zionist household and participating in a Young Judaea youth group for most of his K-12 education, he was taught to hold Israel in the highest regard.

He said he still does. However, the trip opened his eyes to all aspects of the culture and politics.

“A lot of what I learned while in Israel gave me the motivation to be interested in the more technical parts of how public policy is created,” Love said. “We idealize a lot and definitely turn a cheek to some of the poorer decisions the country makes at times…

“For example, we experienced the denial of refugee status for people from Sudan who crossed an entire country without water and then were denied status of asylum … It makes politics a lot more powerful than could be told in the classroom," he said. "You don’t get that in the traditional college experience. It was a really amazing opportunity.”

Love is now a double major in international studies and Hebrew and Jewish cultural studies at the University of Michigan.

Not your 1990s resume

Love’s yearlong study program in Israel cost about $24,000, which is slightly less than one full year’s tuition, room and board, books and supplies and other miscellaneous costs at U-M, according to its website. But he said there are a variety of grants available and scholarships through Jewish synagogues and pro-Israel organizations, so Year Course participants rarely pay full price.

Love said because some participants in Year Course take a military route and eventually join the Israeli Army, his mom was a little worried about his gap-year plans at first.

It helped, however, that Love’s mom and dad both took time off in their 20s and 30s to travel and visit Israel.

“My mom is also a dean at the University of Tennessee now. So she really understands that the old, 1990s cheerleader and organized Relay for Life resume is not what grad schools are looking for these days,” Love said. “You need the language proficiencies and unique experiences to move on and be accepted into top graduate programs.”

While Love said his gap year helped him gain independence, determine his career path, learn how to work hard in a tough environment and mature, some of these traits were disadvantages socially when he entered college life.

“It was extremely difficult for me, to be honest,” Love said. “It wasn’t so much moving from a hands-on, cultural learning experience to a traditional classroom, it was really that … in Israel, I was constantly surrounded by my peers and people to have really meaningful conversations with.

“Coming back was almost like high school... Here were kids who had lived in the dorms for a year... And I can’t tell you the amount of times we had severe emergencies that could have resulted in fatality."

He said it was a rough transition for him the first year.

Sunstein admitted the social ramifications of entering college after a year off is one of his greatest worries.

“But at the same time, I don’t want to stay with the same group of people... It’ll be more exciting to be thrust into a new group of people I’ve never met before.”

Deferring enrollment

The deferment process at U-M is fairly basic. Incoming students wishing to defer must accept the university’s offer of admission and pay the $200 enrollment deposit by the due date. Then, students can submit a written request for deferment to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

“The student’s written request provides the reason for the deferment, what the student’s plans are and so on,” said Erica Sanders, managing director of admissions at U-M. “If granted, the deferment is acknowledged in a written contract between the student and the university.”

Sanders said the most frequently stated purposes for deferments among incoming U-M freshman are medical, cultural or travel abroad, and internships.

Of approximately 90 deferment requests for fall 2011, about 70 were approved, she said. The number of gap-year requests and approvals have grown in tandem with gradual increases in U-M’s overall undergraduate enrollment.

But for universities that have seen a spike in gap-year requests, they are making the process of delaying attendance a little more difficult.

In the fall, Tulane University in New Orleans upped its nonrefundable deposit to hold a freshman spot for a year from $300 to $1,000. The university also, for the first time, will require gap-year students to fill out a separate application detailing their plans, including “what you hope to gain by deferring your admission.”

“We’ve had students taking a gap year who didn’t come back, so we really want to make sure they have a well thought-out plan and that they are fully committed to returning to college,” Jeffrey Schiffman, Tulane’s senior associate director of admissions, told the Associated Press.

He said Tulane typically see 15 to 25 gap-year students in each incoming class of 1,650 freshmen and “definitely” has seen an increase in gap-year requests in recent years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff reporter Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at



Fri, Sep 7, 2012 : 5:38 p.m.

what a bunch of slackers :-) ok, readers...that's "humor". back in my day...many people "took time off" to work before going to college. Call it an off year or whatever, anytime someone chooses to work (volunteering is also work), I applaud it. I can think of nothing negative by doing this. and if they make a little money to offset some the probable college debt...all the better!


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 9:54 p.m.

Living abroad after graduating from high school was the best educational and personal growth experience I have ever had. Last year I lived in rural Senegal for seven months through Global Citizen Year, a program that places students in home-stays and apprenticeships in developing countries in Brazil, Ecuador, and Senegal and then provides support and enrichment as the Fellows integrate into their communities. While living with an agrarian family, I became a member of the family and my village, learned Wolof, the local language, and observed the initiatives of an international development organization, the Millennium Villages Project. I spent days in my family's peanut field harvesting crops, helping local teens to start an English club to boost their skills, and helping nurses at child vaccinations en masse. I came back more mature, more worldly, and more focused. My freshman year was a great success; I attribute it to my year abroad. I encourage any and every student to take a gap year, whether that be abroad or domestically. I have dozens of friends who have; every one of them says it changed their lives forever. I would also like to mention that many programs, Global Citizen Year being one of them, which provides significant aid to students and families to help make the experience accessible to all. Half of my program tuition of paid for by the organization and about a third of all Fellows receive full funding. They are committed to making a bridge year accessible for all driven young people, as it is essential to promoting a broader movement of gap-years in the United States.

John Hritz

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 7:52 p.m.

Gap year activities that center around service seem like a win. Those that are primarily self-indulgence not so much. In addition to military service, there's the Peace Corp and Americorp. Another option is co-op'ing with target industries before and during your education. In theology, there is a notion of discernment. This is the period that a potential nun or priest goes through before making the final decision. Not all college educations result in high income. This doesn't mean they are not worthwhile, but someone ought to know whether a life of service, secular or religious, is what they truly want. There's little point in racking up tuition debt only to find that the field you've chosen isn't a good fit for your personality, conscience or pocketbook. And it bears repeating, that college is only one way to develop a livelihood. In spite of globalization, welders, plumbers, electricians are still in demand. Similarly, you don't have to go to college to be a small business owner. High schools seem to have lost track of these options which is one explanation for why unemployment is high for people with only a high school diploma.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 4:24 p.m.

I should add that every summer growing up my father would take as much saved vacation time he had and he and I would leave the rest of the family to go camping (no one else liked to do it), we would then drive across the country, visiting national parks and camping along the way. I definately learned more during these summer vacations than I did from the text books at school. I read a lot about the places we went and asked my father as many questions as I could think of, I learned to read maps and navigate when I was five, I hiked up mountains, learned about flora and fauna, constellations, first aid and how to drive a stick shift by the fifth grade and countless other things. Returning home meant being a helper on home projects, all of which required learning and knowing math skills that were not yet taught in school to cut wood and build something.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 4:11 p.m.

I graduated from high school in the early nineties and even though I had good grades and was accepted to college, I never really enjoyed school (I found it for one to be incredibly boring). Having started working a lot at a young age and paying for all my wants and not having them hand ed to me I was given a graduation present for a trip to Europe that would cover airfair, some travel expenses and hostel stays, I would have to budget myself and pay for much more of the additional costs, for which I had saved up money for, I visited three countries. After orientation weekend at college I decided I did not want to go, I wanted to take a year off to travel, work and figure out what I really wanted to do. I also found a lot of the "kids" I met to be incredibly immature, binge drinking, silver spoonfed twits. I convinced my parents that it would be a waste of their money and mine to do something that I had zero excitement for when I didn't even know what I wanted to really study or get a degree for. I got a job to make money, saved up money for more trips to europe, eventually got a job in the line of work I do now and started a business that I have been doing since. college isn't for everyone, and it doesn't need to be pushed as such.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

My daughter is taking a gap year and has deferred her college acceptance and scholarship. She will work, shadow professionals in her field of interest, recover from A.P. class burnout, pursue hobbies that she sacrificed her senior year due to work and class load, visit out-of-state relatives and take one hobby related trip that she is paying half the cost. She will continue to grow and mature and will be eager to begin her college experience in fall 2013.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 2:46 p.m.

I have said for many years that upon graduating high school that a student should pick any foreign country and go work and support themselves for one year. I did it through the Army in the Viet Nam, Germany travels. Saw a lot and it made me a better person. I paid nothing up front and had a GI Bill waiting for me to pick a field of my future. This worked out great for me.

mike gatti

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 2:36 p.m.

18 is the new 14


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

If you're looking for an inexpensive gap year opportunity, this organization will help set you up to work and learn on an organic farm: There's a lot to be said for knowing how to feed your family without depending on "the grid". Look for internships in general, possibly paid. There's a lot to be said for on-the-job education versus paying big bucks for theory. Some subjects work well for self-teaching, providing an inexpensive chance to see if it's what you really want to do. See if self-teaching can lead to taking industry recognized certifications which are especially common in the IT field. I would put a hard time limit on such experimentation. Finally, think long and hard about whether a university education makes economic sense for you.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

What is really happening during the "Gap Year" "Organizations are finding ways to capitalize on students' insecurities"

William Purves

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 1:33 p.m.

I would like to clarify a couple of points raised in the comments thus far. First, the class mentioned in the article is a Community Resource class, available to students from any AAPS high school, and the teachers of these classes receive no remuneration. Second, of the students in the class, most held steady jobs during the past few years of high school, and will be working full time after graduation, in order to realize their goals, whether college, culinary school, farming internships, travel etc.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 1:55 p.m.

I have a high school graduate who is taking a gap year and is not participating in a formal program. She has deferred her college acceptance and scholarship. We, her parents, have worked with her developing a budget-friendly program that works for her and our family. She will continue working at her job. She will travel out-of-state and will stay with relatives. She will pursue hobbies and academic interests. There are many options available to students of all academic and financial abilities.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 1:28 p.m.

Plenty of kids -- and I use the term deliberately -- go to college immediately after high school as part of a social autopilot. That includes kids who aren't ready for college yet for lack of maturity and those for whom college isn't ultimately the best answer at all. Once upon a time, there was a culture of apprenticeship -- the idea that a young person could become skilled in an artisan trade. Today, in Israel, there is a requirement for service to the nation (usually, though not always, in the military). The advantages of the gap year -- as a time to mature, gain a little life experience, or do something useful -- could be available to a wide variety of young people. Shame to focus on a narrow group of privileged kids and their approach.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

I guess this class is for the 1%'s, must be nice to drop $17K-$24K for a holiday. And now we have to pay teachers on how students can be more refined and worldly traveled before their freshman year in college, life is tough.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 12:30 p.m.

the laziest and sissified generation ive seen based on my own observation....enjoy the mommy and daddy paid trip to europe.....

Elijah Shalis

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 12:42 p.m.

Yeah, good luck passing the high school diploma increased requirements compared to when you were in school.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 12:19 p.m.

As awesome of a idea as this's really only available to those who's family's have disposable income. There is no possible way a "fresh out of high school" student could have saved up $10k+ for a trip like this. Maybe if they saved every single cent from their part-time-low-pay-after-school job....from the past 4 years. Stuff like this could really get a kid out to see the world and maybe help them get a bit of a grip on reality. Too bad it's far from affordable for most people.

Don Mclean

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 10:17 p.m.

In continuing off of my comment to CMS above, the reality of this situation is that people can afford these trips. They can make a way, whether that is with their parents money or with their savings. If people have a want they can obtain it through their means. Of course there is inequality and there will always be a disparity between incomes but don't assume that this is unobtainable. Perhaps these options aren't the exact end to that goal but it doesn't need to stop a desire.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 11:17 a.m.

when i gradated high school. i did not know what i wanted to do. so i went in the navy for 3 year and 1 month. when i can out i had grown up. it was a great experience and i would not have traded it for the world. you see how others live and what we have here. you compare and see how lucky we are. that makes a difference. i like the idea of taking a break. what i am saying now does not apply to all but some of the students. most of the first semesters are full of freedom. the grades show it. the second is an improvement. so do not even know what they want to be which is natural. so taking a semester off or a year. it great, but they need to go back to school and use that year as a tool to better themselves.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 11 a.m.

To bring down cost and time to degree, High Speed Universities fundamentally changed the business model of higher education. Traditional universities, with their residence halls, football teams, laboratories and theaters, would have difficulty following in High Speed Universities footsteps.


Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 10:41 a.m.

For some reason I feel like a have-not when I read this story. Certainly a nice break for the young people featured in the article but wow, I hope they learn a sense of social responsibility by the gift given to them by their parents.

Don Mclean

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 : 10:14 p.m.

Although there are certainly people who would be unable to afford this now, there is no reason to say that this price tag is too high. In attempting to rationalize the price tag with your own wallet you may think that you are a have not but the only block between what you have is the fact that you are not striving for this goal. Don't be so glib and say that this is a gift from their parents.