Malia Obama’s decision to take a year off before attending Harvard University in the fall of 2017 reflects a growing trend among driven teenagers to pursue other interests and get a respite from the academic grind that has come to define high school for many young Americans.
But it will also provide her with a chance to experience college as the glare of the presidential spotlight has begun to ease, giving her a level of freedom that the daughters of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did not have on their respective campuses.
Malia has not decided what she will do during her year off, according to someone familiar with the process who asked for anonymity to discuss the private decision. “She has yet to even graduate [from high school], so she’s going to take time to think about her opportunities,” the individual said.
Harvard and many other prestigious U.S. schools now encourage applicants to consider taking a “gap year” before starting college to alleviate the stress and burnout that often result from their pressure-filled high school years.
And for Malia, the decision to delay school one year may mean she will not have to be accompanied by the Secret Service contingent that would be required if she began college this fall.
The typical security detail for a president’s daughter includes a small counterassault team, whose heavily armed agents are standing by in case of a possible attack.
Chelsea Clinton and Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, attended college while their fathers lived and worked at the White House. As a result, they had full Secret Service details while in school.
Although the agency tries to make its officers look less conspicuous, assigning younger men and women to the detail and dressing in casual clothes, they still stand out. Johnnie Manzari, a classmate of Clinton’s at Stanford University, wrote on the website Quora that while the officers eschewed suits, “The thing that made them conspicuous was the ear-piece and that they obviously had weapons attached to them under the Hawaiian shirt.”
The Secret Service is authorized by law to offer protection to children of presidents up to 10 years after the parent has left the White House.
President Obama’s predecessors have extended Secret Service protection for their daughters before leaving office, but it is unclear whether Obama will ask for the same level of taxpayer-funded security for his children before he steps down in January.
Between 80 and 110 students defer matriculating at Harvard each year, according to Harvard’s website, double the number it reported four years ago.
An essay co-authored by Harvard’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” suggested that the constant “chase for the prize” has deprived America’s young people of the breaks they need while growing up, and problems can develop once they start college.
“Faced with the fast pace of growing up today, some students are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors,” he and two colleagues wrote, noting that students themselves have suggested that a break after high school can be a remedy. “It can be structured or unstructured, and directed toward career, academic or purely personal pursuits. Most fundamentally, it is a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one’s accustomed pressures and expectations.”
Universities including Princeton, Tufts and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have formal gap-year programs, which give students the option of participating in a structured year of service abroad or in the United States, depending on the school.
But this move is still “unusual,” according to Bruce Vinik, president of the Bethesda, Md.-based Vinik Educational Placement Services, “given how driven students are, at least in this area, to get to college, to graduate in four years and not to fall behind their friends and classmates.”
“It will certainly bring more attention to the idea it’s an option,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to lead to a huge increase.”
Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.