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Your high school kid should definitely take a gap year before college

Malia Obama may be going to Harvard, but the brainy 17-year-old is in no rush. She’s taking a gap year before enrolling with the freshman class of 2017, the White House announced Sunday.

There’s a certain stigma around taking a year off before college in the U.S. — images of slipper-clad teens binge-watching Netflix come to mind — but there are plenty of higher education leaders who would love to see more American students follow in Malia’s footsteps. Proponents like the American Gap Association, a nonprofit that accredits some gap year programs in the U.S., argue that gap years help better prepare students for college and can even help them graduate faster. It takes most college students six years to complete a four-year degree, a trend often blamed on switching majors or transferring schools. When students have time to try their hand at different professions or areas of study before they choose a major, they may avoid the kind of costly academic changes that can delay graduation.

“A gap year is structured and intentional time,” says Andrea Wien, author of “Gap to Great: The Parent’s Guide to a Gap Year.” “They’re planning this out, setting goals and thinking about what types of activities they’re interested in when they’re not bound by obligations.”

Many colleges today allow students to defer their acceptance for up to one year, with certain requirements. For example, at Harvard, students aren’t allowed to earn any academic credit from another institution during their time off. Other schools, like Boston University and the University of Maryland, require students to make a nonrefundable deposit — usually several hundred dollars — to reserve their spot. (The AGA keeps a running list of school requirements on its website).

One important point parents and students should know before planning a gap year is that it isn’t a vacation. “A gap year is really time where you can explore potential career opportunities, maybe travel and have some experiences outside of the bubble of the classroom,” Wien says.

Students can spend a gap year simply working a full-time job, but traditional gap years involve a mix of paid and volunteer work in a field that interests the student.

Harvard University graduate Liza MacEachern, 24, broke her gap year into several chapters. She volunteered at a mix of nonprofits (Teach for America, Dress for Success), an orphanage, and spent several months working on a farm in Italy through a foundation called Spannocchia. Throughout her gap year, she earned extra cash by babysitting.

Liza spent part of her gap year in Italy, working on an organic farm, before enrolling at Harvard University.

“I sort of reached this point where I wasn’t looking forward to going to school,” she told Yahoo Finance. “I knew college was an important time so I reached a point where I decided I needed to take a year off.” MacEachern started planning her gap year with her end goal — a spring internship at an organic farm in Tuscany, Italy. See reached out to her network of family and friends to find enough volunteer work to flesh out the rest of the year. At volunteer gigs in Houston and Boston, she stayed with family to cover her housing. Her parents paid her way to Italy, and she earned money for food and housing by working 8-hour days on the farm. “I just felt as a female that I was able to gain a lot of confidence in who I was and a more direct idea of what I wanted to do,” she said. “I had more responsibility for myself.”

Gap years can get expensive, costing families anywhere from $500 to as much as $50,000. The bills can especially skyrocket when students set their sights overseas. “Parents may have saved for four years of school and an extra year is not really in their budget,” Wien says.

To help ease sticker shock, some schools, such as Florida State University, and gap year programs offer scholarship dollars. There’s a list of other gap year scholarships on Americangap.org. Another way organizations help reduce cost is by organizing home stays, group lodging with other volunteers, or arrangements where volunteers work for lodging and food. AmeriCorps takes volunteers ages 18 to 24 and provides a monthly living stipend. Like MacEachern, students can find internships or volunteer work close to home to save on housing and travel expenses.

For parents, the hardest part about agreeing to a gap year is allowing their kid to break out of the traditional four-year school mold.

“A gap year is a good way to give a student some independence and build up their resilience,” Wien says. “If they’re faced with home sickness or failure, they’re going to have already had that experience when they start college. And they’ve had to get through it on their own.”

After her gap year, McEachern went on to study human evolutionary biology, a branch of anthropology, and now works as an analyst for a Boston-based financial firm.

There’s plenty of support for students and families planning a gap year online. Wien has launched her own Facebook community for so-called “gappers” and the AGA has a wealth of resources online. Check with your school’s career services department for information as well.

Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career, life and money.

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