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​Does a gap year after high school pay off?

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President Obama's oldest daughter may be going to one of the world's most elite colleges, but her route to enrollment will be off the beaten path.

Malia Obama is taking a so-called gap year between her high school graduation this spring and her matriculation at Harvard, which she has scheduled for the fall of 2017. She'll take the time in between to explore other interests, although the White House didn't disclose what she might pursue.

The gap year may be relatively unfamiliar to Americans, but it has become a standard in the U.K., where the practice started in the 1960s. During the past few years, it has gained wider acceptance among U.S. colleges, students and families.

But questions remain about the cost of taking a year off to travel or dedicate time to a passion and whether the practice pays off -- either in terms of higher grades or employment opportunities. A year later, the thinking goes, students with a gap year under their belt are both more mature and more focused in their studies.

"It's a big leap of faith from the historic system," said Jim Zambrano, director of land product development at StudentUniverse, a company that provides tours, flights and hotels to students. "The most impressive thing about the White House announcement was that they even used the term gap year," signifying that the idea is taking hold in the U.S.

Gap years don't have to cost a lot of money, Zambrano added, although he noted that some programs can cost as much as $50,000 per year, or the same price tag as one year at an expensive private college.

That raises the question about whether gap years are geared toward children of families in the top 1 percent of America's income distribution, although Zambrano said he believes it's also a useful strategy for high school graduates who don't plan on going to college but want to add experience and skills to their resume.

"We will have a generation that can't afford college," he noted. "What will they do out of high school but before they enter the workforce? They can take a gap year."

A low-cost gap year might set a family or student back by about $4,000 or $5,000 for the year, such as taking a year to work in Australia or New Zealand. The costs will be tied to travel expenses and other fees. "There are working holiday programs in Australia and New Zealand, where they have good minimum wages," Zambrano said. "They can work and save money and have a good time. There is no income bracket on that."

Getting money to pay for college 04:57

But does it pay off for the student? One recent study from a former Middlebury administrator found that students who took a gap year were likely to shine academically once in college, according to the American Gap Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the practice. The group noted that a gap year is "more than for students who aren't 'ready for college.'"

About 160 colleges and universities now support gap years, including Harvard, which the American Gap Association said recommends taking one in its acceptance letter.

Some gap years can cost almost nothing. Take City Year, a program run by AmeriCorps, which pays high school grads a living stipend and health insurance benefits. After the year, the program said students are eligible to receive scholarships to their college.

As for what Malia Obama will pursue, it's likely that she'll be able to take her pick. "There's speculation that she'll go very high end, all the bells and whistles," Zambrano said. "Her parents will know what time she's eating dinner, and that will be very expensive."

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