SHAWNEE MISSION — Grant Stauffer is willing to admit it: He slacked off his first couple of years of high school. He eventually got on track, but "my parents still believe there's a little more maturing I need to do, especially as far as my whole work ethic goes."
So Stauffer, 18, a Shawnee Mission East graduate, will not be heading to college this fall. Instead, he's taking a "gap year," delaying frat parties, the Freshman 15 and the rest of the college experience by one year.
The gap year option seems to be picking up steam — Stauffer's high school paper, reporting plans of the Class of '10, included gap year alongside work force, military and undecided — but for now it's only a micro-trend.
At William Jewell College in Liberty, for instance, typically just one or two of each year's 300 freshmen ask to defer their first year, and those requests aren't always gap-related.
Not everyone agrees on what a gap year is or when it's taken. Generally it's the year after high school. But some college graduates, rather than dive into grad school or the job market, do a gap year first.
A year that bridges secondary school and university is not a foreign concept in places like Great Britain.
"A gap year, for some students, is a really great idea," said Rick Winslow, vice president for enrollment and student affairs at Jewell.
It's a decision that young people need to make with their parents, Winslow said. For students who are "developmentally mature enough to take a year off and focus on something they're passionate about," it can be a success, he said. A political science major at Jewell, for example, took a gap year before his junior year of college to work on political campaigns and travel internationally.
But "for students who are just blowing in the breeze and not sure what they want to do with the rest of their life, a gap year can be a waste of time," Winslow said.
The important thing is to have a plan — and a backup plan. Students should secure a spot in college beforehand (they can always request a deferment), so if their gap program falls through, they won't waste that year.
For students (and parents) who like the idea of a gap year, there is no lack of alternatives. Books like "The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to do Between High School and College" list page after page of programs.
A gap year can be spent in volunteer service (AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity and others) here or abroad. There are cultural immersion programs such as Adventure Ireland and the Southern France Youth Institute. Plus programs focused on adventure, language study, the outdoors, sports, even sailing.
The cost can vary widely. AmeriCorps gives members an allowance for living expenses and $5,350 to be put toward college. Programs sometimes provide housing and food. Scholarships are available for some gap year programs. But gap students typically have to pay to do volunteer work.
A gap year might end up costing just as much as, or more than, college.
Which brings us back to Grant Stauffer, who will spend what would have been his first semester of college at the National Outdoor Leadership School. For three months he'll be backpacking, rock-climbing, back-country skiing and more across the Western U.S. while learning leadership and how to work with others. He'll be in a gap program for students his age. Bonus: 16 credit hours.
Next spring, he'll take some classes at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park. Then a year from now, he plans to enter Colorado State University in Fort Collins as a sophomore.
"Every time I talk to someone who's already gone through college, 75 percent of them say, 'I wish I'd done something like that,' " Stauffer said. "I think it tends to be the people who change majors midway through college."
His mom, Sara Stauffer of Prairie Village, describes Grant as the most "wet cement" of her three sons. She and her husband, Ward, were afraid he'd end up taking five or six years to earn a degree.
"For us, the college credit (through NOLS) wasn't as important as the life experience and growing up and learning a little more about himself and doing something positive," Sara said.
The idea of taking a year off used to be seen like "that 'Failure to Launch' feeling instead of a positive life experience," she added. A pre-college break can be similar to a semester or year spent studying abroad, "but you end up doing it on the front end."
Which is just what Annie Wake, a 2008 Shawnee Mission Northwest graduate, did. She repeated her senior year — in French — in the small country town of Andenne, Belgium, through a Rotary International program. She lived with three host families there.
She'd spent three weeks in France between her sophomore and junior years, also a Rotary program, so she and her parents had some idea of what to expect.