Eye on the Goal

By Ian Shapira
Sunday, August 5, 2007

THE MOST CENTRAL STRUCTURE IN BILL DAY'S LIFE right about now might well have been Thomas Jefferson's rotunda at the University of Virginia. Instead, it's the Schwan Super Rink, 148,000 square feet of ice in the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine. Housed in a sprawling rust-red brick complex, the Super Rink emerges from the prairie like a temple to youth ice hockey.

On a weekend in mid-November, college scouts, parents and teenagers are pouring into the hockey center for the Junior Jamboree, an all-star game showcasing the country's top pre-college players organized by USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur hockey. One of those talents is Bill Day, 18, a 2006 graduate of George Marshall High School in Fairfax County and a defenseman with the Washington Junior Nationals, a high-level USA Hockey junior league team. Bill has just flown in as one of the junior league's all-stars -- an elite group of players hoping to impress the dozens of college scouts.

Down in the rink's locker room, as loogies are hocked and barbs are traded, Bill, a stony-faced, 5-foot-9, 175-pounder, is silent and jittery. Unlike most other players in the room, he has already been admitted to a university. But right now, this game is more important to him than college. Since U-Va. only has a club hockey team -- and not a competitive Division I program -- Bill has decided to take a "gap year" and defer his college enrollment so he can continue playing in the junior league, which he hopes will enable him to land a hockey scholarship at an equally prestigious university. He's playing the system, in other words, rigging it so that he gets to keep U-Va. in his back pocket and use his year off to court schools he prefers.

In the Super Rink's locker room, as he laces up his tattered black skates and wraps tape around his socks, Bill is nervous about the one prominent institution that is seriously considering him. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which also happens to be his father's alma mater, has dispatched an assistant coach to watch him. But if he doesn't perform well enough -- and today's game is a major audition -- NCAA coaches could suggest he needs more time in the junior league system. That could force him to give up his admission to U-Va. and extend his gap year from one to two.

BILL KNEW THAT HE WANTED THIS LIMBO LIFE when he was a rising high school senior. It fazed him only slightly that he would be left behind, living with his parents, while his friends moved on to college. So, he joined the growing trend of taking a gap year between high school and college. During this time, Bill will focus almost exclusively on two things. He will constantly plot his next move with hockey teams and colleges, making sure that whatever he does this year serves his goals when it's over. And he will try to fit in whatever random fun he can have with his teammates and his girlfriend, a high school senior who will be starting college this fall.

In his unswerving focus, he is similar to many gap year students. The practice of taking time off after graduating from high school became popular in the 1970s, but it has evolved to connote something very different from the more aimless, Jack Kerouac-inspired adventures of 30 years ago. Like Bill, today's students taking gap years often are among the hardest-working and highest-achieving in high school, and they relish the chance to take a break from studying. But they often apply the same industry and organizational skill that helped them excel academically to excelling during the gap year. They come mostly from middle- and upper-middle-income families and have been accepted into a college during their high school senior year and deferred enrollment. Sometimes, they apply to college during their gap year, enabling them to gussy up their application with an essay about their new experience. Often with the aid of one of a burgeoning number of gap year consulting firms, they take on civic projects, such as venturing to Honduras to build a library or working for Habitat for Humanity in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Or, like Bill, they pursue a passion -- heading to Europe to study art or to Baja California to backpack at the National Outdoor Leadership School.

John Blackburn, dean of admissions at U-Va., says he is prohibited from commenting on a student's application. But in general, he says, the admissions office looks favorably on students who want to use gap years to polish a certain skill.

Many of these experiences require parents who are willing to foot the bill. Bill's relatively close-to-home mission to play hockey is costing his parents at least $6,500, which covers travel, equipment and lodging.

While school systems do not track how many graduating seniors take gap years, educators such as David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, cite anecdotal evidence that the practice is increasing. "When I am listening to high school counselors, they report personal experiences hearing from more students interested in participating," says Hawkins.

Still, some parents remain skittish, concerned that if their children don't go to college right away, they never will. When a federal Education Department study was released two years ago, it contained news that seemed alarming: "Delayed entrants" began college at a "significant disadvantage," the report says, compared with their peers who began immediately after high school graduation. The report noted that only 40 percent of delayed entrants earned some kind of postsecondary credential compared with 58 percent of immediate entrants.

But gap year consultants who charge hefty fees to help place students with organizations around the world say the study is too inclusive and takes into account students who delay college for sudden personal reasons, military service or poor grades. Gap year students, consultants say, are those who specifically take time off to focus on a goal.

"The reality with that study is that you're talking about kids dropping out with babies," says Holly Bull, president of the for-profit Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, N.J., which calls itself the country's oldest gap year counseling organization and was founded in 1980. "Gap year kids are going to college with a lot more vigor and excitement about learning. They have a sense of what they want to focus on, and they often are straight-A students. They're more like graduate students who know why they want to be there."

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