From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

Tradition dictates that students begin college in the fall term following their graduation from high school. An increasing number are choosing another path, though, delaying the start of their postsecondary studies for up to a year.

The so-called gap year has been popular in Europe for decades. More than 50 percent of students in Norway, Denmark, and Turkey, for instance, take a year off before college, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education in Oslo, Norway.

The concept has been catching on in the United States, and seemed to get a boost in 2016 when the White House announced that Malia Obama would take a gap year before starting classes at Harvard University.

In fact, Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Harvard have long encouraged incoming freshmen to defer for a year. The trend now seems to be trickling down to public schools.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, and much of the data cited by advocates is not up to date. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that the practice is becoming more common and widely accepted.

According to a recent survey by TD Ameritrade, more than 35 percent of high school students are thinking of taking a gap year, a sharp spike from previous years.

There is even a Gap Year Association that advocates for and accredits formal gap-year programs.

The organization touts research showing that students who take a structured gap year are more likely to graduate on time and with a higher grade-point average. The key word is “structured,” though.

Joe O’Shea, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida State University and author of “Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs,” told The Atlantic magazine that lower-income and at-risk students actually benefit more from taking gap years – provided the activities they pursue are “structured and challenging.”

For most proponents, this means things like traveling, studying a foreign language, volunteering, or other self-enrichment undertakings. Some gap-year students spend the time working. No one advocates taking a year off to play video games.

Clearly, a lot of good can come from taking a year off between high school and college, but students should also be mindful of potential pitfalls. Depending on what you choose to do, it can lead to depleted savings, and without careful planning one can easily get sidetracked.

Students should also know that taking a gap year can have financial aid implications. Those who work, for instance, will have to report income, which could result in decreased federal student aid. And because college and university scholarship budgets vary from year to year, students who defer admission could end up receiving less financial assistance from their school of choice.

As I often say in this space, do your homework and consult people in the know before deciding one way or the other.

Versions of this commentary have appeared on Noozhawk and in the Santa Maria Times.